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Art and Culture

During the Republican period, art was valued for its practical and social significance, rather than for its aesthetic value. The priorities changed under the Roman Empire, when art celebrated power and demonstrated the prestige of the capital. The decadence of the Empire and the recognition of Christianity as the state religion saw the development of large basilicas; since then, these have often been restored or rebuilt. Many still welcome pilgrims today.

Art of Ancient Rome


The remains of only a few public works have survived from the period of the kings and the early Republic, such as the channel of the Cloaca Maxima (the Forum’s vast drainage system, dug in the 6C BC), the town wall built by Servius Tullius (578 534 BC), the Appian Way and the Aqua Appia , both the work of Appius Claudius Caecus , censor in 312 BC.

The major artistic influences came from the Etruscans, whose works they pillaged, and from the East. Victorious generals returned from there, dazzled by the splendours and accompanied by artists engaged in cities such as Athens or Alexandria.

Materials and techniques – Early Rome was built of very simple materials: tufa , a soft brownish stone, volcanic or calcareous in origin; and peperine , also of volcanic origin, which owes its name to its greyish hue and its granular texture, suggestive of grains of pepper ( pepe in Italian). Travertine , a whitish limestone, mostly quarried near Tivoli, is a superior material to the earlier ones employed sparingly in the early centuries. Marble made rare appearances as a decorative material from the 2C BC, but became very popular under the Empire. Brick was first used in the 1C BC; it is usually seen today stripped of its marble facing.

The principles of classical Roman architecture were undoubtedly modelled upon those of ancient Greece. The mastery of three distinctive feats of civil engineering, however, heralded new building practices here. Firstly the Romans discovered concrete, allowing them to build more quickly and therefore more prolifically. Secondly they learnt how to apply marble (and any other finely finished stone like granite, porphyry and alabaster) as surface decoration, rather than using large (and expensive) quantities as blocks. Today, many ruins are reduced to reddish or greying husks, long stripped of their marble facing and friezes.

Thirdly the Romans learnt from their campaigns in the eastern Mediterranean (modern-day Turkey and Syria) the use of the arch, vaulting, squinches and, conse­quently, the art of constructing domes. At last they were able to break the linearity of the Hellenistic style with round arcs.

They poured concrete between simple brick parapets to make solid walls or over brick layers to anchor the voussoirs of an archway, vault or dome. Indeed, the Romans seemingly avoided wooden coffering because of its expense. One particular feature of their concrete is its ability to harden through the centuries: the honeycomb appearance of ruins is largely due to brick erosion.

In their constructions the Romans used the semi-circular arch . The one built over the Cloaca Maxima in about the 2C BC is a true masterpiece. There are some impressive examples of vaulting in the Domus Augustana, in the Pantheon, in Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli, in the Baths of Caracalla and in the Colosseum.

The Romans were masters of building theatres on level ground, rather than set into a hillside, as was the Greek practice. This involved the construction of vaults to support the terraces, as in the Theatre of Marcellus.

Classical orders – Greek architectural orders were employed, but with modifications: in the Tuscan or Roman Doric order, the column rests on a base rather than directly on the ground. The Ionic order was seldom used here; the Corinthian, however, was very popular – the Romans sometimes replaced the curling acanthus leaves on the capital with smooth overhanging leaves and substituted animals, gods and human figures for the central flower.

To the three Classical orders, they added a fourth, called Composite: a capital on which the four scrolls of the Ionic order surmounted the acanthus leaves. The entablature (comprising the architrave, frieze and cornice) was very ornate, richly decorated with pearls, ovoli and foliage.

The names of two architects have survived: Rabirius, active under Domitian (AD 81 95), and Apollodorus of Damascus who worked for Trajan (AD 98 117) and Hadrian (AD 117 138).

Buildings and Monuments

Theatres – Pompey built the first permanent theatre (Teatro di Pompeo) , which he passed off as a temple with semi-circular steps, to avoid a ban. Unlike the Greeks, the Romans built on flat sites, using vaults to support the rows of seats which often ended in a colonnade. The space in front of the stage (the orchestra) was reserved for actors and later people of rank, who came to watch the play. Thespians came on to the stage, which was raised above the orchestra, through three doors in the wall at the back of the stage. Animals and chariots entered from the sides.

The rear wall, the most beautiful part of the theatre, was decorated with many columns, statues set in recesses and marble and mosaic facings. Behind the rear wall of the stage were the dressing rooms, storerooms and a portico overlooking a garden.

The stage hands were responsible for special effects: smoke, lights, thunder, apparitions and grand finales, gods and heroes who descended from heaven or disappeared into the clouds. The male actors wore masks to differentiate characters. The acoustics were influenced by the canvas awning slanting down over the stage, which concentrated the sound so it penetrated to the top row of the terraces and also, perhaps, by resonant vessels strategically placed to act as loudspeakers. It has been suggested that when the actors sang, they stood in front of the rear wall of the stage so the doors acted as sounding boards.

Amphitheatres – The Romans invented venues, such as the Colosseum, for displays of gymnastics and horse-drawn chariot races. Their main use, however, was for combats between gladiators, who were mostly slaves or prisoners. Wild beasts also battled. Romans considered these bloody events so important that candidates for public office incorporated them into their campaigns.

During the spectacle, slaves burned or sprayed perfume to neutralise the smell of the animals, covered the sand in the arena with red dust to hide the bloodstains and used lead-weighted whips to coerce human contestants or animals into the fray. Loud music played throughout the spectacle.

Amphitheatres were more or less oval in shape. The outer wall consisted of three storeys of arcades, surmounted by a wall with poles that supported the huge awnings. The most important spectators sat on a podium, protected by a balustrade; it was raised above the arena and positioned in the centre of one of the longer sides at the foot of the terraced area (cavea) that surrounded the arena on all sides.

Baths – Bathing occupied an important place in the Roman day, particularly during the Empire. Free public clubs provided thermal pools, gymnasia and places to stroll, read or converse. Built on a large scale, the pleasure palaces contained columns, capitals, mosaics, coloured marbles, statues and frescoes.

Basilicas – Originally, basilicas accommodated law courts and stallholders, where people might congregate out of the sun or rain. The term, which means “royal portico”, referred to it being a covered area. Rows of free-standing columns upheld the roof and divided the internal rectangular space into a “nave” flanked by two side aisles. Rome’s first was the Basilica Porcia at the foot of the Capitolino in 185 BC. Unfortun­ately nothing remains. The use of basilicas for religious functions was assumed with the rise of the early Christian Church.

Triumphal arches – These monuments commemorated the triumph of a victorious general or raised a statue into prominent view. Some had only one opening (Arch of Titus) ; others had three (Arch of Septimus Severus, Arch of Constantine) . Perhaps the original designs linked to the belief that a defeated army lost its powers of destruction on passing under the arch.

Circuses – The huge oblong arenas hosted popular chariot races; these include the Circus Maximus and Maxentius’s Circus off the Old Appian Way.

Stadiums – These, too, were oblong in shape, but showcased athletic competitions. The site of Domitian’s Stadium (Stadio di Domiziano) is now occupied by Piazza Navona.

Aqueducts – The impressive engineering of these great constructions has probably contributed more than anything else to the Roman reputation for building. The Aqua Appia, the oldest aqueduct, originally stretched more than 16km/10mi in length and was built in 312 BC by Appius Claudius the Blind. Approximately 100m/328ft of the aqueduct is still standing.

Roads – In some places, considerable stretches of the old paving are intact. The word civus alludes to a street going up or down hill; a vicus is a side street.

Temples and Worship

Temples celebrated the gods or an emperor, who, since the time of Caesar, rose to divine status. Inspired by Etruscan and Greek models, their design varied from the elemental simplicity of the Temple of Fortuna Virilis to the more complex design of the Temple of Venus and Rome. Each temple had a place (cella) reserved for the statue of its divinity. Before this was a pronaos, set behind a colonnade. The whole structure stood on a podium.

As far as religion was concerned, Rome drew on all mythological sources for her deities; the 12 main gods and goddesses were the same in number, if not always in name, as their Greek counterparts on Mount Olympus. Public worship was held in the temples, but people also worshipped various household gods (lares et penates) . Many houses had a sort of shrine (lararium), where offerings were made to the souls of ancestors.

Cult of the Dead

Tombs often lined the roads outside the city. Romans practised both burial and cremation. During the Republic, tombs with several chambers enclosed sarcophagi. The most common and elementary marker was a tablet (cippus) , a simple block of stone bearing an inscription. More elaborately worked memorials, made of stone or marble, were called steles (steli) .

Much later, large underground communal chambers (colombarium) became the popular form of burial for the poor and for slaves. Much like a dovecote, small niches in walls housed urns. The dead person was often “accompanied” on his journey to the other world with clothing, weapons, tools, jewellery (for a woman) and playthings (for a child).


Depending on their social and financial status, the ancient Romans lived in a multistorey building (insula) containing several dwellings, a small middle-class house, or a large-scale patrician house (domus) . Though luxurious, the latter seem modest by modern standards, with their simple walls and lack of windows.

These early houses contained a large rectangular room (atrium) with an open roof in the centre, which allowed rainwater (pluvial) to collect in a basin (impluvium) . This atrium contained the room where the head of the family worked and received visitors, as well as other smaller rooms. Top-ranking officials, wealthy farmers and prosperous merchants had a second house, built in a more elegant Greek style, which was reserved for the family. Used only at certain times of the year, it consisted of rooms built around various atria and a colonnaded courtyard (peristylium) , with a garden or sometimes a fishpond in the centre. In the dining room (triclinium) , guests semi-reclined on couches.


In this discipline, the Romans most imitated Greek art. They erected mass-produced sculptures all over town: prefab bodies in togas took custom heads. The Romans liked white and coloured marble, dark red spotted porphyry and alabaster. They also worked in bronze (notably Marcus Aurelius’ statue).

Their originality sparked with portraits , fostered by the aristocratic practice of wax death masks. Caesar’s portraits always show a calm, reflective and energetic character, whereas Augustus, with his prominent ears, displays serenity and coldness. Malice unfurls in Vespasian’s face and thick neck. Trajan must have had a very broad face and his hairstyle curiously accentuates this peculiarity. The equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius is the sole survivor of a tradition established by Julius Caesar: the Emperor as an all-powerful conqueror.

The Romans also excelled in historical low-relief sculptures . The scenes on a sarcophagus or on Trajan’s column are models of composition and precision.

Decorative sculpture , exceptionally rare in the Republican era as the sarcophagus of Scipio Barbatus shows, r­eached its apogee in the Augustan era with the Ara Pacis . One type of sculpture gave expression to popular taste , depicting various crafts and scenes from everyday life on the tombstones of work­ing people.

Decadence in sculpture became apparent in the 3C AD: the folds of garments were scored too deep, making the figures rigid, the expressions became fixed because of excessive hollowing out of the pupil of the eye and the hair was carelessly treated.


A study of the frescoes in Pompeii has identified four periods in Roman painting. The “first style” consists of simple panels imitating marble facing. The “second style” is marked by architectural features in trompe l’oeil, to which small illustrated panels were added in the “third style”. With the “fourth style” the trompe l’oeil became excessive and the decoration overloaded. Examples of Roman painting can be seen in Livia’s House and the Griffin House on the Palatine and in the National Roman Museum (housed in the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme) .


This technique developed from an attempt to strengthen the floor surface, which was made of a mixture of broken tiles and chalk, by inserting pebbles and then small pieces of marble, which could be cut to a uniform size and arranged to form a design.

Roman workshops also copied the opus sectile technique, which originated in the East. A stencil of a decorative motif was applied to a marble base. The outline was traced onto the marble, then hollowed out and filled with small pieces of coloured marble. Examples are on display at the Picture Gallery in the Conservators’ Palace and in the Ostia Museum.

Christian Art

The pagan cult of idols and the commandment in the Bible against “graven images” inhibited the spontaneous development of a new style of art among the early communities.

At first Christian art borrowed from the pagan repertoire those subjects that could be used as symbols: the vine, the dove, the anchor, etc. Paintings appeared on catacomb walls, following the earlier tradition; the oldest date from the 2C AD. The chief Christian building was the basilica (not to be confused with the secular pagan basilicas). Constantine erected the first of these over the tombs of Peter and Paul the Apostles (St Peter’s in the Vatican; St Paul Without the Walls) and next to the Imperial Palace (St John Lateran) .

Medieval Period

Only a few rare, but splendid, examples survive from the Middle Ages in Rome. Supplanted by Constantinople as the capital of the Empire and invaded by barbarians, by the 6C Rome was a ruined city with barely 20 000 inhabitants. In the 10C it became the battleground in the struggle between the Pope and the German Emperor. Until the 15C only simple constructions appeared.


Civil architecture consisted mainly of fortresses for noble families on strategic sites ( Crescenzi House, Militia Tower) .

Builders quarried ancient sites for church decoration : capitals, friezes and columns like those in Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Sabina, etc. As such material grew scarcer, items from different sources blended into one church (columns in San Giorgio in Velabro, Santa Maria in Cosmedin, etc) .

The basilical plan of the early churches was retained during the medieval era. It consisted of a rectangular building divided down its length into a nave flanked by two or four aisles separated by rows of columns; one of the shorter sides contained the entrance, the other the apse (with quarter-sphere vault). Between the apse and the nave and at right angles to them ran the transept. The nave extended above the side aisles and was lit by clerestories. It was covered by a pitched roof, left open or masked by a flat ceiling in the interior. The façade was often flanked by a bell-tower (campanile). In Rome these towers are decorated with horizontal cornices dividing them into several storeys, with white miniature columns standing out against the brickwork and ceramic insets in brilliant colours.

By the 6C a rail had been introduced separating the congregation from the clergy and creating the chancel (presbyterium) on either side of the bishop’s throne (cathedra) , which stood in the apse. In front were the choristers in the schola cantorum . Churches also often housed a martyrium with the relics of the saint. The high altar was covered by a baldaquin or canopy (ciborium) .

Sculpture, painting and mosaic

The architect and sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio (c. 1235 c. 1302) moved to Rome from Florence around 1276. He created the baldaquins in St Paul Without the Walls and in Santa Cecilia, and the statue of Charles of Anjou in the Museo del Palazzo dei Conservatori.

Frescoes and mosaics were the chief forms of medieval decoration. The Romans had a taste for anecdotes and bright colours.

The period from the 12C to the 14C is dominated by the Cosmati , all descended from one Cosma, who formed a guild of marble workers. Their workshops used fragments of ancient materials to create beautiful floors with decorative motifs of multicoloured marble and the furniture of a medieval church: episcopal throne, ambones (lecterns), paschal candlesticks. The early works, composed entirely of white marble, are very simple. Later they added porphyry and serpentine marble (green) cut in geometric shapes (roundels, lozenges etc). They produced lively effects with incrustations of enamels – blue, red and gold – on the friezes and wreathed columns of cloisters.

In the latter half of the 5C, Byzantine mosaics influenced Rome’s style: figures with enigmatic expressions, often richly dressed, in conventional poses, which express the mysticism of the Eastern Church through symbolism.

Carolingian art brought a less rigid fashion, for example, works dating from the reign of Paschal I (817 24) (Santa Prassede; Santa Maria in Domnica) . From the 11C to 13C the Roman workshops produced sumptuous masterpieces (the apse in San Clemente) . Pietro Cavallini , the greatest artist in this period, must have worked in Rome at the end of the 13C and early in the 14C. He was both painter and mosaicist – a master of the different influences. His pure art is best expressed through the mosaic of the life of the Virgin in Santa Maria in Trastevere and by the fresco of the Last Judgement in Santa Cecilia. Jacopo Torriti and Rusuti were disciples of his.

Renaissance Art

After almost 10 centuries of invasions and plundering, the Popes brought new life and renewed prosperity to the capital of the Roman Catholic Church, thanks to the contribution of talented artists such as Michelangelo, Bramante and Raphael. This new explosion of art attracted wealthy patrons to the city, and the period saw the construction of a number of fine Renaissance palazzi. After the Council of Trent, the canons of religious architecture were influenced mainly by the religious orders, which created an austere, yet grandiose style. In painting, the first hints of the bold new style could be seen. The Renaissance made less impact on Rome than on Florence.

At the beginning of the 15C Rome was exhausted by the struggles of the Middle Ages and had nothing to show of artistic merit. By the end of the century, the city was an important archaeological centre and famous for its abundant artistic activity commissioned by popes and prelates. It was Martin V (1417 31), the first pope after the Great Schism, who inaugurated this brilliant period. It all ended in 1527 when the troops of Charles V sacked Rome.


The inspiration for Roman Renaissance buildings springs from classical monuments. The Colosseum’s superimposed orders and engaged columns are imitated in the court of the Farnese Palace. The vaulting of Maxentius’ Basilica led to the dome of St Peter’s in the Vatican. And the Pantheon’s curved and triangular interior pediments have been reproduced many times.

The churches are austere in appearance. The nave is covered by rib vaulting and flanked by apsidal side chapels; the arms of the transept end in rounded chapels. The first domes began to appear (Santa Maria del Popolo, Sant’Agostino) . The screenlike façade has two stages: one above the other linked by scrolls. Broad flat surfaces predominate; shallow pilasters are preferred to columns. The first hints of the Counter-Reformation and the Baroque can be seen through broken lines, recesses and columns progressively more accentuated.

Sixtus IV (1471 84) was responsible for the majority of the Renaissance churches: Sant’Agostino, Santa Maria del Popolo and San Pietro in Montorio were built in his reign. He founded Santa Maria della Pace and made great alterations to the Church of the Holy Apostles.

The palazzi were large private houses between Via del Corso and the Tiber.Pilgrims crowded these streets, alongside the feast-day papal processions from the Vatican to the Lateran: Via del Governo Vecchio, Via dei Banchi Nuovi, Via dei Banchi Vecchi, Via di Monserrato, Via Giulia, etc. They supplanted the medieval fortresses; the Palazzo Venezia, begun in 1452, has retained its crenellations. From the outside the palazzi are gaunt and austere (barred windows on the ground floor) . The inside was designed for a cultivated lifestyle, associated with sculptures and paintings.

Sculpture and painting

After working in Rome from 1496 1501 Michelangelo returned in 1505 to design a tomb for Julius II. Despite the magnificent monument, the Pope, preoccupied with the construction of St Peter’s, suddenly lost interest. In 1508 the Pope summoned Michelangelo back and commissioned the Sistine Chapel. The painter revolutionised the concept of religious decor and produced a huge architectural structure, dominated by powerful figures (the Prophets, Sybils and Ignudi , or naked figures) and panels illustrating episodes from Genesis. In both his painting and sculptures, Michelangelo emphasises the human body and radically changed the way man was represented. He portrays people as grandiose and dramatically aware of their own existence: physically powerful, muscular and tormented figures.

The other artist of major importance in the Renaissance period was Raphael . He, too, attempted to portray pure beauty, firstly in his gentle and balanced portraits, then by using the sfumato technique perfected by Leonardo da Vinci , and finally by acquiring the anatomical mastery of Michelangelo.

In decorative sculpture, delicate ornamental foliage and floral motifs often appear in gold (door-frames, balustrades, etc). Funeral art flourished under Andrea Bregno and Andrea Sansovino , who combined a taste for decoration with ancient architecture.

An artistic melting-pot

The Renaissance style reached Rome after being developed elsewhere and all the artists came from outside the city: the Umbrians were known for their gentle touch, the Tuscans for their elegant and intellectual art and the Lombards for their rich decoration.

Gentile da Fabriano and Pisanello were summoned to Rome in 1427 by Martin V and Eugenius IV to decorate the nave of St John Lateran (destroyed 17C 18C).

Masolino da Panicale , who came from Florence, painted St Catherine’s Chapel in St Clement’s Basilica between 1428 and 1430.

From 1447 1451 Fra Angelico , also from Florence, decorated Nicholas V’s Chapel in the Vatican.

For the painting of the Sistine Chapel walls Sixtus IV called on Pinturicchio , Perugino and Signorelli from Umbria and on Botticelli , Ghirlandaio , Cosimo Rosselli and his son Piero di Cosimo from Florence. He also commissioned Melozzo da Forli to paint the Ascension in the apse of the Church of the Holy Apostles (fine fragments in the Vatican Picture Gallery and in the Quirinal Palace) .

In about 1485 Pinturicchio painted the life of St Bernard in Santa d’Aracoeli and a Nativity in Santa Maria del Popolo. Between 1492 and 1494 he decorated the Borgia Apartment in the Vatican for Alexander VI.

From 1489 1493 Fra’ Filippino Lippi was at work on the Carafa Chapel in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.

Bramante , who arrived in 1499, designed the tempietto beside San Pietro in Montorio (1502), built the cloisters at Santa Maria della Pace (1504) and extended the choir of Santa Maria del Popolo (1505 09).

From 1508 12 Michelangelo was at work painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for Julius II. In 1513 he began the Pope’s tomb. The Last Judgement was painted between 1535 and 1541 and he worked on the dome of St Peter’s from 1547 until his death in 1564. His last work was the Porta Pia (1561 64).

From 1508 11 Baldassarre Peruzzi constructed the Villa Farnesina for Agostino Chigi.

In 1508 Raphael began to paint the Stanze in the Vatican. In 1510 he designed the plan for the Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo. From 1511 he worked on the decoration of the Villa Farnesina for Agostino Chigi. In 1512 he painted Isaiah in Sant’Agostino and the Sibyls in Santa Maria della Pace in 1514.

Sodoma arrived in Rome from Milan in 1508 to paint the ceiling of the Signature Room in the Vatican for Julius II. He worked on the Farnesina in about 1509.

Early in the 16C Jacopo Sansovino built San Giovanni dei Fiorentini for Leo X.

In 1515 Antonio da Sangallo the Younger began to build the Farnese Palace; Michelangelo took over in 1546.


The Counter-Reformation, which covered the period from the reign of Paul III (1534 49) to the reign of Urban VIII (1623 44), was marked by the sack of Rome in 1527 and by the rise of Protestantism. The movement sought to put down the heretics, restore the primacy of Rome and to rally the faithful to the Church. The Society of Jesus, formed in 1540, proved to be a most efficacious instrument in the struggle. Henceforward the influential power of art was put at the service of the Faith.

Several successes ensued – the Battle of Lepanto (1571), the conversion of Henri IV of France (1593) and the Jubilee (1600) – all expressed in an artistic style which presaged the Baroque.


The church style is sometimes called “Jesuit” because of the comprehensive contribution made by the Society of Jesus. The architecture combines an austere solemnity with a rich marble decor: churches appeared majestic and powerful. Designed to assemble the faithful together, these structures are vast. The Gesù Church is a typical example. The nave is broad and uncluttered, so that every member of the congregation could see the altar and hear the preaching. On the façade, the plain surfaces of the Renaissance are replaced with recesses and projections, and engaged columns are gradually substituted for the flat pilasters.

The most prolific period for civil architecture was in the early Counter-Reformation, during the reigns of Paul III, Julius III, Paul IV and Pius IV, who lived like Renaissance princes. The family illustrates the Church triumphant: Paul V acquired the Borghese Palace and built the Pauline Fountain; his nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, led a cultivated life, evident from the ornate splendours of the Palazzo Pallavicini and the “Palazzina” or Villa Borghese, which now houses the Borghese Gallery.

Sculpture and painting

In the spirit of the Counter-Reformation, painting had to exalt the themes rejected by the Protestants: the Virgin, the primacy of St Peter, the doctrine of the Eucharist, the cult of the saints and their intercession for the souls in purgatory.


Wild emotion and wit burst onto the European art scene between 1520 and 1600. This movement – perhaps best personified by Michelangelo Buonarroti – rejected the serene balance of the High Renaissance.

Figures bend, bounce and bulge muscles in paintings. Colours fly off canvases. References and dirty jokes lace through virtuoso compositions. Fountains play music or wheeze animal cries. Branches weave into bowers. Hydraulics mischievously squirt visitors. Mannerism (from the Italian maniera , “style”) is all about self-conscious grandstanding.

The pranks and preening reflected the new status of artists: no longer craftsmen, they were admired as intellectuals beside scholars, poets and humanists. Some experts connect the trippy hues, illogical compression of space and convoluted poses to the upheaval of the plague, Reformation and sack of Rome in 1527.

Lazio – the area around the capital – is the epicentre of Mannerist gardens with Vignola’s Villa Lante in Bagnaia and Palazzo Farnese in Caprarola and Ligorio’s Villa d’Este in Tivoli and Monster Park in Bomarzo. Examples in Rome include Raphael’s Villa Madama and the tatty remains of the Farnese Garden on the Palatine Hill.

In sculpture there is the work of two of Michelangelo’s close followers: Ammanati (1511 92) and Guglielmo della Porta (1500 77). The end of the period is marked by the presence in Rome of Pietro Bernini (1562 1629), the father of Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Among the painters are Daniele da Volterra , who worked with Michelangelo, and Giovanni da Udine , Sermoneta , Francesco Penni and Giulio Romano , who formed part of the “Roman School” around Raphael. The style of the next generation – Federico and Taddeo Zuccari , Pomarancio , Cesare Nebbia , Cavaliere d’Arpino etc – is a direct development of Raphael’s art. Barocci , whose soft and emotional style never lapsed into affectation, deserves a special place.

In their attempts to imitate, the Mannerist painters were often guilty of excess. Their colours are pallid, as if faded by the light; fresco paintings are framed with stucco and gilding or elaborate combinations of marble; large areas are often divided into smaller panels, which are easier to paint.


Reaction to Mannerism began with the earthy and often offensive Caravaggio , who heralded the first signs of the Baroque, and the Bologna Group , led by the Carracci who ran an academy in Bologna from 1585 95: Ludovico (1555 1619), founder of the academy, and his cousins Agostino (1557 1602) and Annibale (1560 1609), who were brothers. Guido Reni (1575 1642), Domenichino (1581 1641) and Guercino (1591 1666) tried to achieve more verity of expression without abandoning idealism.

Michelangelo Merisi (1573 1610), known as Caravaggio after the name of his home village near Bergamo, began to work in Rome with Cavaliere d’Arpino in 1588. But he was quarrelsome and had to flee from the city in 1606 after murdering a man over a tennis match.

Never a dull moment then, as Caravaggio swashbuckles through history beating acquaintances, murdering and fleeing the authorities. Biographer Peter Robb explains: “He is portrayed as a violent, psychotic man, but he was much more wronged than wronging. His actions were entirely defensive.

“Caravaggio was hounded from the moment he became famous. He lived in an ugly, repressive society.” Robb explains that the emotion-choked paintings exploded on the “decadent, stilted world of Roman art. His vigorous, clean realism was absolutely stunning.”

He claims the bad boy was harassed – and ultimately killed – for love. The traditional view holds that Caravaggio set off for Rome and a papal pardon. Arrested by mistake, he missed the boat – which contained paintings he hoped would influence his case. Enraged, he followed on foot up the coast, where he caught fever and died in the wilds.

“He was murdered. It was revenge,” Robb insists. “Many mysterious and sinister things happened in the last years of his life. He slept with a sword under his bed – that is the behaviour of a hunted man... He suffered some overnight reversal of fortune in Malta, where he was celebrated. I think it was a sexual crime and that’s why it has been dropped from the records.”

Roman Baroque

The style

The Baroque style is characterised by its theatrical architecture, comprising a riot of concave and convex curves and twisted columns, sculptures that capture a moment of action, and are embellished by putti statues, golden rays, and trompe l’oeil ceilings suggesting non-existent domes. The dominant feature is movement, pulling the eye from façade to fountain to piazza, each sight as superb as the last. This rich, dramatic style found the perfect home in the Italian capital, evolving over the years to create its own specific quirks, now known as “Roman Baroque”.

The Baroque style evolved in the 17C and 18C. Several theories expound the origin of the term: in Portuguese “ barroco ” alludes to an uneven or irregular pearl (from which the French derived the term baroque meaning “bizarre, eccentric, profusely decorative”). In both cases, however, the attributed meaning tends to be pejorative, deriding the conscious deviation from established rules, and canons of harmony and beauty. It was a long time before the style was re-evaluated and appreciated.

Baroque, meanwhile, enjoyed a great vogue in the papal city during the reign of Urban VIII (1623 44), becoming synonymous with the triumph of Catholicism over heresy. The Church, with its newly acquired strength and spiritual power, and the popes, with their desire to glorify God through new works of art, attracted illustrious talent to the city.

Leading artists

The two most important artists in the world of Roman Baroque art were Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini . Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 1680) was born in Naples.

Early on, Cardinal Scipione Borghese recognised Bernini’s genius and commissioned sculptures for his villa (now in the Borghese Gallery) . At the age of 17, he produced his first work, Jupiter and the Goat Amalthea , followed by the magnificent sculptural groups of the Rape of Proserpina , Apollo and Daphne , and David . On the election of Urban VIII, he was appointed official artist to the papal court and to the Barberini family. After Maderno’s death in 1629, the Pope put him in charge of the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica.

During the reign of Innocent X (1644 55), Bernini sculpted his extraordinary Ecstasy of St Theresa and the Fountain of the Four Rivers . Under Alexander VII (1655 67), he built the church of St Andrew on the Quirinal, the colonnade enclosing St Peter’s Square, redesigned St Peter’s Chair and built the Royal Stair (Scala Regia) in the Vatican Palace. Eventually he was summoned to Paris by Louis XIV and his minister, Colbert, to mastermind the façade of the Cour Carrée in the Louvre, but as the King turned his attention to Versailles, Bernini’s design was never carried out.

Not only an architect and sculptor, Bernini probably painted a hundred pictures, of which only a few have survived. He produced a great deal of work, rose rapidly and was very successful.

His genius was recognised in his lifetime and he received many decorations; his contemporaries saw in him another Michelangelo. He was welcome in the most brilliant circles; he put on plays for his friends, designing the stage sets, writing the words and playing a role. He was fleetingly eclipsed by Borromini when Innocent X succeeded Urban VIII, but soon returned to favour with his Fountain of the Four Rivers.

Francesco Borromini (1599 1667) was the son of Giovanni Domenico Castelli, an architect to the Visconti family in Milan. He trained as a stonemason and acquired great technical experience. The artist worked as Carlo Maderno’s assistant on St Peter’s, Sant’Andrea della Valle and the Barberini Palace. In 1625, he received the title of maestro and in 1628 took his mother’s name: Borromini. He based his art on rigour and sobriety, excluding marble decorations and paintings. In Borromini’s art, the Baroque style is expressed by architectural lines that he cut and curved with a sure hand. As an architect, he was critical of Bernini’s over-dramatic and excessive style. Unsurprisingly, the two artists were supported by different patrons: the papal court favoured Bernini; Borromini’s style agreed mainly with the religious orders, such as the Trinitarians and the followers of St Philip Neri.

San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Borromini’s first full-scale work, probably shows his genius at its best (1638, although he envisioned the façade much later, in the year when he died) . At the same period, he designed the Oratory of St Philip Neri, typical of his original and balanced style. Around 1643 he built the small church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, with its convex and concave curves culminating in a multi-lobed cupola. These projects earned him the protection of Fra Spada, who became Innocent X’s adviser. The Pope raised him to the first rank and appointed him to renovate St John Lateran for the Jubilee of 1650.

Borromini, an introvert who shunned the world, lived in constant anxiety and never knew the fame enjoyed by his rival. One night, in a fit of anguish and anger against his servant, he took his own life.

Other architects worked in Rome at that period. Carlo Maderno , responsible for the façades of St Peter’s and Santa Susanna, and Giacomo della Porta , probably the most active architect around 1580, were both great admirers of Michelangelo and are often included among the Mannerists. Flaminio Ponzio worked for the Borghese (front of their palace, Pauline Fountain) . Giovanni Battista Soria designed the façades of Santa Maria della Vittoria and St Gregory the Great. The well-proportioned architecture of Pietro da Cortona is most attractive (St Luke and St Martina, the façade of Santa Maria in Via Lata, the dome of San Carlo al Corso) . In contrast with the dramatic architecture of Bernini and Borromini, this artist took his inspiration from the 16C models of Bramante and Palladio. He paid particular attention to the position of his work in an urban context (the façade of Santa Maria della Pace) . The name of Carlo Rainaldi deserves to be remembered for his work in Santa Maria in Campitelli (1655 65) and for his arrangement of the “twin” churches in the Piazza del Popolo, which frame the entrance to Via del Corso.

Baroque Art

An inherent quality of Baroque art is restlessness – movement and contrast. Water, with its undulations and reflection, was an essential element. Effects dazzled from expensive materials, such as marble and precious stones. Cesare Ripa’s dictionary, which appeared in 1594, explained how to express an abstract idea – even in stone.

In architecture , building plans hoped to express movement (San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Sant’Andrea al Quirinale) . Façades were embellished with disengaged columns, bold projections, curved contours and recesses.

Flowing garments and figures expressing abstract qualities dominated sculpture . The altarpieces are decorated with pictures of marble and wreathed columns; the latter, a feature of ancient Roman art, were very popular with Bernini (baldaquin in St Peter’s) . Church interiors are full of cherubs perched on pediments and cornices.

In addition to the sculptors associated with Bernini (Antonio Raggi, Ercole Ferrata, Francesco Mochi, etc), mention must be made of Alessandro Algardi (1592 1654), inspired by classical art; he produced remarkable portraits and marble pictures, including the funerary monument of Leo XI in St Peter’s.

Baroque painters sought to achieve effects of perspective and trompe l’oeil with spiralling or diagonal compositions. They included Pietro da Cortona , an architect as well as an interior designer, whose masterpiece is the fresco depicting the triumph of the Barberini family in the palace of the same name. Also worthy of note is Giovanni Battista Gaulli. Known as Baciccia , he was a Bernini protégé who frescoed the Chiesa del Gesù ceiling. The artist Giovanni Lanfranco (1582 1647), from Parma, painted the dome of Sant’Andrea della Valle with great technical skill. Andrea Pozzo , a Jesuit, who was a painter, studied the theory of architecture and had a passion for trompe l’oeil . The best expression of which is without a doubt his fresco on the ceiling of the church of Sant’Ignazio: it is hard to believe that the cupola figured here is only an illusion. His book Prospettiva de’ pittori e architetti appeared in 1693 and circulated throughout Europe.

Rome attracted artists of all nationalities. Rubens made several visits; he admired Michelangelo, the Carracci and Caravaggio and completed the apse paintings of the New Church. During his long stay, Velazquez painted a fine portrait of Innocent X (now in the Galleria Doria Pamphili) .


The 18C etchings of Piranesi don’t always resonate now. After 1870, in an attempt to fulfil its role as the new-minted capital, the city spewed forth vast new residential districts. During the Fascist period, the layout transformed further. Buildings such as the Law Courts (palazzaccio) , the monument to Victor Emmanuel II (the “wedding cake” or “typewriter”), and the Palazzo delle Civiltà del Lavoro (“square colosseum”) may initially have been unpopular, but they now form a familiar backdrop.


This trend developed from the middle of the 18C until the early 19C and was marked by a return to Greek and Roman architecture, recently rediscovered during the excavations of Herculaneum, Pompeii and Paestum. Following Baroque exuberance, Neoclassicism was characterised by simplicity and symmetry, even a touch of frigidity. This was the period when Winckelmann, who was Librarian at the Vatican and in charge of Roman antiquities, published his works on art. Francesco Milizia launched his criticism of the Baroque and superfluous decoration, while praising the simplicity and nobility of ancient monuments.

Piranesi (1720 78), engraver and architect, took up permanent residence in Rome in 1754. He produced some 2 000 engravings, including the series “Views of Rome”, published in 1750: an incomparable collection full of charm and melancholy. He also designed the attractive Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta.

Antonio Canova (1757 1821) was the showy talent at this time and Napoleon’s favourite sculptor. His works’ calm regularity enchanted his contemporaries.

In architecture, mention should be made of Giuseppe Valadier , who laid out Piazza del Popolo (1816 20). Non-Italians, such as the German Mengs and the French at the Villa Medici, stand out in painting.

The end of the 19C saw artists – such as Cesare Maccari (frescoes in the Palazzo Madama) and Guilio Aristide Sartorio (frieze in the chamber of the Parliament building) – working in Rome.

Modern Art

An exponent of Roman Futurism, Giacomo Balla (1861 1958) moved to Rome in 1895. With Fortunato Depero, he signed the 1915 manifesto of the “Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe”; after 1930 his painting reverted to pre-Futurist themes. Other important artists were Mario Mafai (1902 65) and Gino Bonichi (also known as Scipione) (1904 33), members of the Roman School, which Renato Guttuso joined in 1931. The major developments in both painting and sculpture can be seen in the National Gallery of Modern Art.

Architecture and Town Planning

For its first 20 years as the capital of Italy, Rome was a building site. The town plans of 1871 and 1883 provided for the construction of housing for the new civil servants around Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, Piazza dell’Independenza, at Castro Pretorio and in the Prati; for the demolition of the slum districts of the inner city; for the construction of administrative buildings; for the establishment of banks and newspapers; and for the provision of arterial roads. Via del Corso and Via Nazionale, which were opened soon after the inclusion of Rome in the kingdom of Italy, were followed by Corso Vittorio Emanuele II and Via XX Settembre.

First Quarter of the 20C

The government undertook more public works. In 1902, the Humbert I tunnel linked the Quirinal and the business centre. Extensive parks, formerly the private property of the great families, were opened or, like the Villa Ludovisi, sold as building lots for residential development. Romans constructed the Tiber embankment and cut away the Campidoglio to make room for the monument to Victor Emmanuel II. The International Exhibition in 1911 developed the district around Piazza Mazzini, while a benefactor contributed a huge museum of modern art in a leafy setting. The year 1920 heralded the onset of the garden suburbs: near to Monte Sacro in the north and at Garbatella in the south.

Mussolini’s Rome

The arrival of Mussolini in 1922 ushered in a policy of grandiose town planning linked to the Fascist ideology which favoured a return to ancient grandeur.

Three new streets – Corso del Rinascimento, Via della Botteghe Oscure and Via del Teatro di Marcello – were opened up to allow traffic to penetrate the Campus Martius. Via dei Fori Imperiali was opened in 1932 to give a clear view of the Colosseum from Piazza Venezia. The reconciliation of the Church and State, sealed in the Lateran Treaty in 1929, was marked by the opening of Via della Conciliazione (1936) to the detriment of the medieval district of the Borgo. As it had been decided that Rome should expand towards the sea, construction began on the new district known as EUR.

From the Second World War to the Present Day

The Holy Year in 1950, when masses of pilgrims were expected, saw the completion of both Via Cristoforo Colombo and the railway station (Stazione Termini). The Flaminia Stadium, the small Sports Palace in Via Flaminia and the Sports Palace in EUR were built for the 1960 Olympic Games. The Olympic Village in Via Flaminia was built on a site cleared of old run-down housing. Corso di Francia, a wide elevated highway, is also a daring piece of architectural design. In the west, Via Olimpica connects the Foro Italico to EUR. In 1961 the international airport at Fiumicino (Leonardo da Vinci) was built to complement the existing one at Ciampino. In 1970 the main orbital road around the city (Grande Raccordo Anulare – 70km/ 44mi) was finished.

Among Rome’s modern buildings, mention should be made of the RAI block, the British Embassy, buildings in EUR, the Chamber for Papal Audiences built by Pier Luigi Nervi in 1971 and the Gregorian Profane and Christian Museums (both in the Vatican) , and the more recent structures by American architect Richard Meier (the Ara Pacis museum and the Church of Tor tre Teste) and Italian Renzo Piano (Rome Auditorium) .


Rome has long been a popular subject for foreign writers, detailed by travellers such as Mark Twain, Stendhal and Goethe. However, perhaps the best portraits of this fascinating and contrasting city appear in the satire of the Roman author Bellini, or more recently in the complex novels of Alberto Moravia.

Rome’s contribution to Italian literature is an important one. Over a period spanning at least seven centuries (from the 3C BC to the famous sack of Rome in AD 410) , Latin literature flourished. The different literary genres included epics, by writers such as Ennius (239 169 BC), Virgil (70 19 BC), Lucan (39 65) and Statius (40 96); comic dramas by Plautus (?250 184 BC) and Terence (?184 ?159 BC; satirical works by Lucilius (?168 102 BC), Horace (65 8 BC) and Juvenal (2C AD); didactic poetry by Lucretius (?98 ?55 BC); love poetry by Catullus (87 ?55 BC), Propertius (97 16 BC), Tibullus (55 19 BC) and Ovid (43 BC AD 17); rhetorical and philosophical prose by Cicero (106 43 BC) and Seneca (?4 BC AD 65); and romances by Petronius (2C AD) and Apuleius (AD 125 180).

Historians have left fascinating accounts. Caesar (100 44 BC) wrote about his own military campaigns in The Gallic Wars and The Civil War . Two monographs by Sallust (86 35 BC) have survived, the Bellum Lugurthinum (an account of the war in Numidia from 105 11 BC) and the Bellum Catilinae , on the Catiline conspiracy of 63 BC, which was also the subject of four famous orations by Cicero (known as the Catilinarie ). These works, along with others by the same author (such as the Pro Murena and Pro Milone ), paint an illuminating picture of the political climate during this period of the Republic.

Other annalistic works include the Libri Ab Urbe Condita by Livy (59 BC–AD 17), containing vivid descriptions of events that took place between the founding of the city and the 9C BC (of which about 30 books have survived intact), and the Annales (a history of the period from the death of Augustus to that of Nero) and Historiae (the period from Galba to Domitian) by Tacitus (55–117).

These official histories are complemented by the Lives of the Caesars (from Julius Caesar to Domitian) by Suetonius (?70–?125) – a kind of biography – and the 10 books of the Epistulae by Pliny the Younger (61–113), letters on a range of themes written to characters of the time, including the Emperor Trajan, which are fascinating for their portrait of high society during the Imperial era. In contrast, Petronius paints a grotesque and parodistic portrait of this society in his Satiricon (brilliantly adapted for cinema by the director Fellini).

From the Middle Ages Rome gradually lost her supremacy in the literary arts to other cities in Italy (especially Florence). Not until the founding of the Roman Academy by Pomponio Leto (1428–97) did the city regain literary eminence. This role was consolidated by the Arcadia Society , foundedin 1690 by Giambattista Felice Zappi (1667–1719) and his wife Faustina Maratti (1680–1745). This society, situated at the time on the Janiculum Hill, championed a style reminiscent of the Canzoniere by Petrarch, as opposed to the Baroque “bad taste” of the 17C. Among the main exponents of this style were Paolo Rolli (1687–1785) and Pietro Metastasio (1698–1782). The latter was appointed official poet at the Imperial court in Vienna and his melodramas, such as Catone in Utica and Dido Abandoned , met with notable success both in Italy and abroad.

The city played a marginal role in cultural debate during the Enlightenment, a movement that greatly influenced Milan and Naples. Writers who visited Rome seemed to appreciate its unique nature, which gave rise to extremes of high praise or fierce condemnation. Although Goethe hurled abuse at the noise in Via del Corso during the Carnival, he confessed that he felt reborn the day he arrived in Rome (Italianische Reise – Italian Journey) . Mark Twain did not look favourably on the papacy or its superstitious trappings. He claimed that walking through the streets of Rome it was difficult to believe in the city’s magnificent past (The Innocents Abroad) . Leopardi had a deeply disturbing impression of the city at the beginning of the 19C; he saw it as somehow shut in, lacking in imagination, and full of “quite repulsive” women.

Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli (1791–1863) wrote in dialect, using popular themes similar to those of the Romantic movement. Belli wrote over 2 000 sonnets (sonetti) , which portray the life of the common people, using the language and vocabulary of the lower social classes. He succeeds in painting a clear picture of Roman society, divided between the aristocracy and clerics on the one hand, and the “plebs” on the other, interspersed with occasional references to folklore. Another author who wrote in the Roman dialect was Carlo Alberto Salustri, better known as Trilussa (1873–1950), whose colourful and witty works describe popular dissatisfaction with the Fascist regime of the time.

A superb evocation of Rome is found in Il Piacere (1889) by Gabriele D’Annunzio . The author describes 16C courts and sumptuously decorated Baroque palaces in great detail, providing the backdrop for the elegant receptions and grand banquets held by high society. Places appear as symbols of the various characters, so that the city almost becomes a protagonist in the novel.

Two other leading lights of the city were Vincenzo Cardarelli (1887–1959) and Antonio Baldini (1889–1962) who produced the magazine La Ronda between 1919 and 1923.

Among contemporary writers, Alberto Moravia (1907–90) described the apathy and inadequacy of Rome’s bourgeoisie in Gli Indifferenti and La Noia , and put forward a clear portrayal of the lower echelons of Italian society in La Romana , Raconti Romani and La Ciociara (successfully adapted for the cinema by De Sica). During WWII, author Elsa Morante hid in villages south of Rome with Moravia. Thirty years later, in 1974, she based a sweeping novel on this fugitive existence. The story revolves around Ida Mancuso: widowed, raped and abandoned, yet resilient. As Esquire reviewer Alfred Kazan observed, History is “one of the few novels in any language that renders the full horror of Hitler’s war, the war that never gets into the books”.

Born and educated in Milan, Carlo Emilio Gadda (1893–1973) owed some of his fame to a novel based in Rome, entitled Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana (1946). The title translates literally as “That Awful Mess on Via Merulana”. The novel effectively portrays Rome during the Fascist period, set around events taking place in 1927 and depicting all strata of society, from the bourgeoisie to the working class. Much of the novel’s success lies in its use of the Roman dialect, for which Gadda consulted with friends who were experts on the subject, resulting in a new, bold and original mix of language.

An important figure in the cultural world of the 1960s and 1970s was Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922–75), also not originally from Rome. This widely debated figure was a poet, novelist, critic, film director and dramatist. He portrayed a sadly realistic picture of the Roman underclass in Ragazzi di vita and Una vita violenta .

For a wide array of writing about the city, turn to Smiles of Rome . Editor Susan Cahill compiled this literary companion. Sample Freud on Michelangelo, Edith Wharton on the Villa Borghese and Eleanor Clark , author of the classic travelogue Rome and a Villa , on the Pyramid of Cestius in the Protestant Cemetery (in which the remains of both Keats and Shelley lie).


Art and Architecture

Roman Building Jean Pierre Adam (Routledge 1999)

Roman Art and Architecture Sir Mortimer Wheeler (Thames & Hudson 1964)

A Handbook of Roman Art: A Survey of the Visual Arts of the Roman World Martin Henig (Phaidon 1995)

Roman Imperial Architecture JB Ward-Perkins (1981, Yale University Press 1992)

Lives of the Artists G Vasari (1965, Oxford Paperbacks 2008 [2 vols])

The Italian Painters of the Renaissance B Berenson (Ursus Press 1999)

Commentaries and Fiction

Italian Journey Wolfgang Goethe (1788, Penguin Classics 2004)

Pictures from Italy Charles Dickens (1846, Penguin Books 2006)

Daisy Miller Henry James (1878, Penguin Popular Classics 2007)

The Child of Pleasure Gabriele d’Annunzio (1889, Biblobazaar 2009)

Quo Vadis Henryk Sienkiewicz (1896, Norilana Books 2006)

Italian Hours Henry James (1909, Penguin Classics 1995)

I, Claudius Robert Graves (1934, Penguin Classics 2006)

The Woman of Rome Albterto Moravia (1949, Zoland Books 1999)

Death in Rome Wolfgang Koeppen (1954, Granta Books 2004)

Leaving Winter Kathleen A Quinn (Silver Lake Publishing, 2003)

Romanitas Sophia McDougall (Orion Books 2005)

Imperium Robert Harris (Simon & Schuster 2006)


A History of Italy Stuart Woolf (1979, Routledge 1991)

A Traveller’s History of Italy Valerio Lintner (1989, Chastleton Travel 2007)

Roman Society D Dudley (Penguin History 1991)

The Romans: An Introduction to their History and Civilization K Christ (University of Chicago Press 1985 [translated from German])

Rome: Its People, Life and Customs UE Paoli (Bristol Classical Press 1996 [translated from Italian])

Renaissance Rome: 150059 P Partner (1980, University of California Press 1992)

The Risorgimento and the Unification of Italy D Beales (1982, Longman 2002)

The Pope and the Duce PC Kent (Macmillan Press Ltd 1981)


The Holy Year in Rome: Past and Present EM Jung-Inglessis (International Scholars Publications 1998)


Stories of Rome Livy, translated by R Nicholls (Cambridge University Press 1982)

The Italians Luigi Barzini (1964, Simon & Schuster 1996)

Romans, their Lives and Times Michael Sheridan (Phoenix Paperbacks 1995)

Rome, the Biography of a City Christopher Hibbert (1995, Penguin 2001)

The New Italians Charles Richards (Penguin 1995)


Rome has always provided the perfect backdrop for the big screen and for a few decades it was also home to the most important film studios in Europe, Cinecittà . (The name, pronounced chee-nay chee-TAH, means “cinema city”). The Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini founded the lot in 1937, aping Hitler’s and Stalin’s propaganda machines. Set on the Via Tuscolano, the studios covered an area of 600 000m²/6 456 000sq ft and housed 16 film sets, offices, restaurants, a huge pool for shooting water scenes and all the latest technology and gadgetry. These state-of-the-art facilities contributed to an increase in domestic film production, which was now completely autonomous. In the first six years, some 300 films were produced here – and not all were Fascist boosterism. “Black” films championed the cause, while middle-class melodramas – called “white telephone” after that ubiquitous prop – peddled escapism.

Cinecittà is also the cradle of neo-realism (the Italian School of cinéma vérité ). Although films of this type are usually shot outside, giants like Vittorio de Sica and Roberto Rossellini did make some of their earliest works in the studios. The main theme of the neo-realists was the war and all its tragic consequences. In Roma Città Aperta (1945), Paisà (1946) and Germania Anno Zero (1948), Rossellini portrayed Nazi–Fascist oppression. De Sica, in Sciuscià (1946) and Ladri di Biciclette (1948), drew a searing portrait of postwar unemployment and misery. In Riso amaro (1949) and Pasqua di Sangue (1950), De Santis described a working class divided between a submission to the dominant ideology and its revolutionary aspirations.

The government began discouraging left-leaning productions in the 1950s. Gritty truths gave way to gloss, earning Cinecittà the nickname “Hollywood on the Tiber”. Cheap and cheerful, the studio fostered American feature films like Roman Holiday, The Quiet American, Ben Hur, Quo Vadis? and The Pink Panther . Elizabeth Taylor first met her great love, Richard Burton, while filming Cleopatra here. And the world learned what to call the photographers pursuing the pair – paparazzi – thanks to Federico Fellini ’s La Dolce Vita . The director captured many of the Eternal City’s most enduring cinematic images, including Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni in the Trevi Fountain, and the bubble-headed fabulousness of the Via Veneto. He shunned locations and constructed lavish foam copies of monuments, including St Peter’s cupola, on the lot (Soundstage Five, Europe’s largest, was his preferred workspace for four decades). He considered the studio a temple of dreams: “For me, every journey starts and ends at the studios of Cinecittà... It’s my ideal world, the cosmic space before the Big Bang.”

For Italian cinema, the 1960s were a golden age. Supported by a powerful industrial infrastructure, the studios produced more than 200 films a year – and of the best quality. Luchino Visconti was a key player during this era. His early work focused mainly on themes relating to social injustice. Later films examined the decadence and disenchantment of the middle classes. Among his masterpieces were Ossessione (1943), Notti Bianche (1957) and Ludwig (1972).

The 1960s also brought a new generation of directors keen to record their political and social commitment, such as Pasolini , Rosi and Bertolucci . During the same period, the work of Sergio Leone , who produced a vast quantity of “spaghetti westerns”, also kept the studios at Cinecittà in the limelight.

From the 1970s into the 90s, Italian cinema suffered a crisis, both in terms of production and creativity, which only a few films d’auteur managed to resist. Among the most recent are La Famiglia (1987) by Ettore Scola , Caro Diario (1994) and La Stanza del Figlio (2001) by Nanni Moretti , none of which were produced at Cinecittà. In 1997, the government sold the ailing studio to private companies, captained by Diego Della Valle, who runs JP Tod’s, the Italian shoe company. A $25m infusion attracted Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002) and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), among other high-profile projects, but the studio still struggles. And computers threaten its strong suits: superb artisans and space for replica worlds. Cinecittà celebrated its 70th birthday in 2007. In 2009, big hopes lie with special-effects technology, pay-per-view television and a proposed theme park.

Italian Films

Rome was a favourite venue for directors of Italian neo-realist films during the late 1940s and the city continues to be a popular backdrop for Italian cinema today. Below is a list of well-known movies that were shot in the capital.

Roma, Città Aperta by R Rossellini, 1945. A portrayal of the Italian Resistance in Nazi-occupied Rome. This film represents a landmark in Italian cinema, with a memorable performance by Anna Magnani.

Ladri di Biciclette by V de Sica, 1948. This masterpiece of neo-realism depicts the working-class districts of Rome, postwar, when a bicycle represented survival.

Domenica d’Agosto by L Emmer, 1949. Episodes from daily life taking place at the same time on a Sunday in August on the road leading from Rome to the beach in Ostia.

La Dolce Vita by F Fellini, 1960. Evocative shots of Rome serve as a backdrop to the portrayal of an empty-headed generation with little interest in anything other than forgetting the past and enjoying themselves.

C’Eravamo Tanto Amati by E Scola, 1974. Three friends who were in the Resistance together meet up in Rome years later and compare their loss of hope and illusions.

Una Giornata )Particolare by E Scola, 1977. The story of an intense relationship between a resigned housewife and a homosexual anti-fascist on the day in May 1938 when Hitler visited Rome.

Un Sacco Bello by C Verdone, 1979. The three episodes of this film portray an average man from Rome, with all his faults and qualities.

Caro Diario by N Moretti, 1994. One of the three episodes that make up this film is a wonderful autobiographical trip through Rome by scooter.

La Parola Amore Esiste by M Calopresti, 1998. A touching story of loneliness, love and psychological hardship.

The Talented Mr Ripley by A Minghella, 1999. Matt Damon as Tom Ripley, a loner who takes over the life of playboy Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law).

The Passion of the Christ by M Gibson, 2004. A depiction of the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus Christ, filmed in ancient Aramaic.

Rome 2005. This HBO mini-series chronicles the fortunes of two noble families and two Roman soldiers during the reign of Julius Caesar. Filmed entirely in Rome and Cinecittà.

When in Rome by M Steven Johnson 2009. New Yorker Beth attends her sister’s wedding in Rome and finds herself embroiled in a romantic comedy of multiple suitors after taking coins from a “fountain of love”.

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