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The forgotten glamour and modernism of 1930s Italian cinema sets

a film still showing people in a restaurant with sweeping modernist balcony

Carlo Levi and Enrico Paulucci Set design for Patatrac (Dir. Gennaro Righelli, 1931). Collezione Museo Nazionale del Cinema, Turin

Feast your eyes on these modernist set designs from 1930s Italian cinema – rediscovered at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art

With post war neo realist films like The Bicycle Thief and La Strada traditionally held as the zenith of Italian cinema, it’s unsurprising that Italy’s contributions to cinematic art during the 1930s have often been overlooked by most histories of European cinema.

Yet within the pre-war period of Italian film making, which in its later stages inevitably succumbed to the Fascist propaganda film, there is a world of sumptuous sets and remarkable modernist designs waiting to be rediscovered by a new generation of cinephiles.

At London’s Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, whose permanent holding comprises over 120 artworks by many of the most prominent Italian artists of the modernist era, they are about to explore this elegant cinematic interlude by celebrating the role played by Italian architects and architectural culture of the 1930s in the development of a distinctly modernist film aesthetic.

In recent years there has been a steady and considered re-assessment of the work produced in this troubled decade, in particular the influence of Rationalist architecture which sought to find a middle ground between the bold architecture of the Futurists and the anti-avant-garde, Fascist-inspired, Novecento Italiano.

a photo film still of a man and woman seated at a glass cocktail bar with a futuristic diorama within it

Gastone Medin Set design for La casa del peccato (The House of Sin; Dir. Max Neufeld, 1938), with Assia Norris and Umberto Melnati. (Photographer: attributed to Aurelio Pesce) Fondazione Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia – Cineteca Nazionale

a film still of a curved bar with bar stools and exposed beams

Gastone Medin Set design for Due cuori felici (Two Happy Hearts; Dir. Baldassarre Negroni, 1932). Photographer: attributed to Aurelio Pesce. Fondazione Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia – Cineteca Nazionale

a film still of various people in evening dress in Modernist styled bar with a curved counter top

Rita Franchetti and Vittorio De Sica in a scene from the film Due cuori felici (Two Happy Hearts) (Dir. Baldassarre Negroni, 1932). Set design by Gastone Medin. Collezione Museo Nazionale del Cinema, Turin.

As a result, many Italian architects embraced the Modern Movement (albeit a few years behind France, Germany and other central European countries) and – in what is possibly a unique case for a European dictatorship – were to a certain extent supported by the government.

Recognising the powerful role that cinema could play in popularising modern architecture, some architects like Giuseppe Capponi got personally involved with set design. Others, such as the editors of the architecture magazines Casabella and Domus, vocally supported their colleagues’ efforts to reflect in film settings the latest developments in architecture and to ‘educate’ the public by familiarising them with modern design.

Both magazines had emerged in the late 1920s with Casabella championing the radical new architecture and Domus focussing on the relationship between architecture, interiors and lifestyles.

All of these themes were increasingly adopted in contemporary films, largely thanks to the production company Cines, which consciously sought to raise the quality of Italian cinema after a period of decline in the 1920s.

a photo of an interior of an apartment with modernist furniture

Carlo Levi and Enrico Paulucci Set design for Patatrac (Dir. Gennaro Righelli, 1931). Collezione Museo Nazionale del Cinema, Turin

a photo of a curved bar in a cafe

Gastone Medin Set design for L’ultima avventura (The Last Adventure; Dir. Mario Camerini, 1932). Photographer: attributed to Aurelio Pesce. Fondazione Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia – Cineteca Nazionale

a photo of the interior of an apartment

Gastone Medin Set design for Due cuori felici (Two Happy Hearts; Dir. Baldassarre Negroni, 1932). (Photographer: attributed to Aurelio Pesce) Fondazione Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia – Cineteca Nazionale.

The modernist sets were often photographed prior to filming, and it is these photographs – which could be easily confused with the images of real interiors published by Casabella or Domus – that are featured at the Estorick, together with clips from the most significant films.

Architects sketches and visualisations of the ambitious designs are also displayed together with images of architecture from the RIBA Collections to highlight influences such as that of the Bauhaus, to reveal the international rather than local character of these films’ modernist aesthetic.

The exhibition is curated by Valeria Carullo, an architect and curator at the RIBA Photographs Collection, whose research into modernist film set design in 1930s Italy has opened a window onto architectural and filmic practice and the international exchange of ideas on art and design that was taking place in the background.

But as well as making links with the general context of European cinema and architecture of the era, the exhibition reminds of the power of classic cinema and the way it could disseminate, promote and ‘sell’ ideas about elegant design.

a photo of a woman in a long shimmering ball gown and cloak inside an apartment

Luisa Ferida in a publicity shot for the film L’argine (The Embankment; Dir. Corrado D’Errico, 1938) Set design by Carlo Enrico Rava and Salvo D’Angelo. (Photography: Foto Pesce) Collezione Museo Nazionale del Cinema, Turin.

a photo of an apartment interior with large mirror and couch

Gastone Medin Set design for Cento di questi giorni (Many Happy Returns; Dir. Augusto and Mario Camerini, 1933). Fondazione Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia – Cineteca Nazionale

Rationalism on Set, Glamour and Modernity in 1930s Italian Cinema is at the Estorick Collection, London from April 18 – June 24 2018. 

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The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art opened in London in 1998. Its new home - a Grade II listed Georgian building - was restored with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and contains six galleries, an art library, cafe and bookshop. The Collection is known internationally for its core…

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