The Bioscope Guide to … Italy

Lyda Borelli (left) and Francesca Bertini, drawn by Tito Corbella

Time to start up another series, and this time it’s going to be an occasional series looking at the history of silent cinema in various countries, with a list of resources (offline and online) to aid the researcher. One can argue against the need for national histories of cinema, even that such nationalism creates myopic and self-serving accounts, but their value (and popularity) probably outweigh such qualms – and they do provide us, quite literally, with boundaries. And so we start with Italy.

Italy’s contribution to silent cinema was a considerable and a distinctive one, but it was slow off the mark. Although it had some pioneer experimenters in the 1890s, such as Fileteo Alberini, for the most part film in the first years meant exhibition of films from other nations or actuality filmmakers such as Vittorio Calcina (who was a Lumière representative) and Italo Pacchioni, perhaps the first independent native filmmaker. At this period, when films were widely exhibited in Italy but local production was minimal, the leading figure was probably Leopoldo Fregoli, an immensely popular comedian and mimic who introduced film (the Fregoligraph) into his act in 1898.

Italian film production properly began in 1905 with the production by Alberini and fellow exhibitor Dante Santoni of La Presa di Roma (The Capture of Rome), Italy’s first dramatic film, prophetic in its choice of classical-historical subject matter. A year later their company took on the name of Cines. The growth in cinemas, and a great upsurge in audiences, encouraged an explosion in native film production. Among the leading companies were Cines, Ambrosio, Pasquali, Itala, Comerio (later Milano) and the Pathé offshot Film d’Arte Italiana. The leading production centres were Rome and Turin, and Italian films were exported worldwide as well as locally, establishing a strong reputation for costume dramas and comedies. Italy became one of the world’s leading film production centres.

Italian filmmakers (and audiences) delighted in classical and literary subjects, tackling Shakespeare, Dante and Edward Bulwer-Lytton (the much-filmed The Last Days of Pompeii), films which delighted in emphasising opulence, elevated drama and a classical heritage that was especially theirs. This taste for the cultured came in part from the aristocratic leanings, indeed blood, of some Italian producers and investors, men like actor and director Gustavo Serena, Alberto Fassini (who owned Cines), Giuseppe Di Liguoro, who ran Milano Films and was the company’s main director, and Baldassare Negroni, another aristocrat-filmmaker, this time for Celio.

To demonstrate that their cinema was not all high-minded, Italian comedians developed a rudely cinematic, knockabout style that blended chase, social satire and film trickery, with such notable comics as Cretinetti (the Frenchman André Deed), Kri Kri (Raymond Frau), Lea (Lea Giunchi) and Tontolini (Ferdinando Guillaume) and Robinet (Marcel Fabre). Delightfully Italian in their particular vaudeville style, such films also point the way to the American slapstick that was eventually to supplant them on the world market.

Cabiria (1914), from

As films grew longer, Italian ambitions grew. The taste for classical subjects led inexorably to grander treatments – the literal cast of thousands – as films started to dazzle audiences with scale and spectacle. Out of the major Italian studios came a succession of epic, feature-length productions that caused amazement worldwide: L’Inferno (1911), which shocked many with its scenes of writhing nudity, La caduta di Troia (The Fall of Troy) (1911), Quo vadis? (1913), Cajus Julius Caesar (1914) and grandest and maddest of them all, Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914). Cabiria, a tale of the Punic Wars, was 4,000 metres long (over three hours) and came burdened with grossly verbose titles courtesy of Italy’s great poet/dramatist Gabriele D’Annunzio. Cabiria‘s commanding sense of space (accentuated by distinctive slow camera tracking shots), visual design, and the movement of crowds impressed all who saw it, even while the human drama was dwarfed. It particularly influenced the epic film in America, most noticeably D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. Cabiria also introduced the character Maciste, the Hercules-like strongman, played by Bartolomeo Pagano, who would feature as the leading character in a great many films throughout the 1910s and 20s, and then revived as a character in the 1960s.

Cinema fascinated Italian intellectuals. Futurism, the modernist art movement that largely centred on Italy, theorised rhapsodically about film and its relation to the urban and the mechanical. Futurists Arnaldo Ginna and Bruno Corra made experimental films in 1910-1912 which combined motion picture colour with music, and Ginna made the film Vita futurista (1916). Conversely, Luigi Pirandello’s wrote a novel Si gira (1915), revised in 1925 as Quaderni di Serafino Gubbio operatore (English title Shoot!), in which cinema is representative of all that is mechanised and soulless.

The epic productions made Italy the talking point in world cinema for a brief period, but another national form of film – and one more localised in its appeal – was the diva film. These were slow moving but artfully designed melodramas, with scenarios where strong leading ladies suffered glamorously, usually dying for love in the final reel. Italian diva actresses included Pina Menichelli (Tigre Reale, 1916), Francesca Bertini (Assunta Spina, 1915, which she co-directed), Lyda Borelli (Malombra, 1917), Maria Jacobini (Resurrezione, 1917) and Italia Almirante Manzini (L’inamorata, 1920), while their celebrated stage equivalent was Eleonora Duse (who made just the one film, Cenere, in 1916).

Post-war, Italian cinema withered away. The dominance achieved by America worldwide, and the competition in Europe from German cinema, had a deleterious effect on the Italian film industry, which could no longer afford to produce the lavish films of which its reputation had been based. Production dwindled almost to nothing by the mid-1920s, and quality declined in tandem (with some brave exceptions, such as Maciste all’Inferno, 1926). Fascism, dominant in Italian life from 1922, showed little interest in film until sound arrived in 1930, and with it a revival in Italian cinema – but that is another story.

Notable filmmakers
Arturo Ambrosio, Mario Caserini, Giuesppe De Liguoro, Enrico Guazzoni, Gerolamo Lo Savio, Luigi Maggi, Baldassare Negroni, Elvira Notari, Roberto Omegna, Ernesto Maria Pasquali, Giovanni Pastrone, Eleutrerio Rodolfi

Notable performers
Franceca Bertini, Lyda Borelli, Leopoldo Fregoli, Emilio Ghione, Lea Giunchi, Ferdinando Guillaume, Leda Gys, Maria Jacobini, Italia Almirante Manzini, Pina Menichelli, Amleto Novelli, Bartolomeo Pagano, Ruggero Ruggeri

These are Italian silents currently on DVD (more will be added here as I find them):

  • Assunta Spina (d. Francesca Bertini, Gustavo Serena 1915) [Kino]
  • Cabiria (d. Giovanni Pastrone 1914) [Kino]
  • Christus (d. Giuseppe Di Liguoro 1914) [Grapevine]
  • Diva Dolorosa [Zeitgeist]
    Peter Delpeut’s ‘found footage’ documentary on Italian silent melodrama, using fourteen films including La donna nuda (1914) and Tigre reale (1916)
  • Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (d. Mario Caserini 1913) [Kino]
  • Maciste all’inferno (d. Guido Brignone 1926) [Grapevine]
  • Marcantonio e Cleopatra (d. Enrico Guazzoni 1913) [Grapevine]
  • Salammbo (d. Dominico Gaido 1914) [Grapevine]
  • Silent Shakespeare [BFI] [Milestone]
    Includes Re Lear (d. Gerolamo Lo Savio 1910) and Il mercante di Venezia (d. Gerolamo Lo Savio 1910)

The finest publications on silent Italian cinema are, inevitably, in Italian. This is a selection of some of the leading titles, with a smattering of English language texts. Current academic interest tends to lie with the leading actresses of the teens and women directors such as Elvira Notari and Elvira Giallanella.

Luigi Pirandello’s novel Si gira (1915), or Shoot! is available for free from Project Gutenberg (Australian version)

The following silent film era journals from the Museo Nazionale del Cinema are availablein digitised form from the Teca Digitale piemontese:

  • Bollettino di informazioni cinematografiche – 1924-1925
  • Bollettino edizioni Pittaluga – 1928-1929
  • Bollettino staffetta dell’ufficio stampa della anonima pittaluga – 1929-1931
  • Cine Mondo: rivista quindicinale illustrata de cinema – 1927-1931
  • Al cinema: settimanale di cinematografia e varietà – 1922-1930
  • Eco film: periodico quindicinale cinematografico – 1913
  • Figure mute: rivista cinematografica – 1919
  • Films Pittaluga: rivista di notizie cinematografiche: pubblicazione quindicinale – 1923-1925
  • Il Maggese cinematografico: periodico quindicinale – 1913-1915
  • Rassegna delle programmazioni – 1925-1926

Archives and museums
Italy has a couple of outstanding film/pre-cinema museums, and a profusion of film archives with silent film holdings to one degree or another.

Italy is the home of film festivals, and boasts three that specialise in silent film, two of them exclusively. Pordenone and Bologna (which includes sound films) share honours for being the world’s leading festivals of early film.


  • 100 Years of Cinema Exhibition in Italy
    Part of a site on the history of cinema-going in Italy – includes basic information on cinemas and exhibition in the silent era
  • Archivio Storico
    Thousands of newsreels and documentaries from 1928 onwards produced by Luce (and others), with many video clips
  • CinemaItalia
    General history of Italian cinema written by David Parkinson, with a section on the silent era
  • Divina Lyda
    Biographical site (in Italian) on Lyda Borelli, with many photographs
  • Dive cinema muto
    Italian site (in Italian) devoted especially to the Italian ‘divas’ such as Lyda Borelli and Francesca Bertini (site no longer active – link is to Internet Archive record)
  • In penombra
    Valuable new site on aspects of Italian silent film history, in Italian but with English translation software
  • Non solo dive
    This site for a 2007 conference on women and Italian silent cinema seems no longer to be active, but conference details are on a Bioscope post
  • Unsung Divas of the Silent Screen
    Mostly American actresses, but pages on Bertini, Borelli and Menichelli, with useful links

4 responses

  1. Thank you. I’ll add bits and bobs as I find them. Took quite a bit of time to put together, so it is definitely going to be an occasional series, but I like making the blog serve as a (hopefully) useful reference source.


  2. Pingback: The Bioscope Guide to … China « The Bioscope

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