The Volta in Trieste


Exhibition on James Joyce, the Volta Cinematograph and Trieste, on show in Trieste

Well, it’s good to be home again. I’ve spent the past week or so in Italy, mostly in the fair city of Trieste for a conference on James Joyce and the cinema. And an excellent conference it was too, with some fine papers identifying the several ways in which Joyce’s work (particularly Ulysses) has affinities with early cinema.

There was yours truly, speaking about Joyce’s brief time as a cinema manager in Dublin; Marco Camerani, Philip Sicker, Carla Marengo Vaglio and Maria di Battista each speaking on aspects of early cinema in Joyce’s work, especially the ‘Circe’ episode in Ulysses, with references to Georges Méliès, Segundo de Chomon, Leopoldo Fregoli and more; and Katy Mullin on the relationship between the erotic in early Edison and Biograph actuality and comedy films and Joyce. Other speakers covered film adaptations of Joyce’s work, making it a very rounded event. I found the arguments convincing and illuminating, particularly regarding the debt Joyce (an avid filmgoer from 1904 onwards as well as a cinema manager, albeit briefly and somewhat ineptly) shows to early cinema in his fiction. The promised book of essays coming out of the conference will be something to look out for.

There was also (and continues to be) an exhibition on Joyce, the Volta and Trieste, entitled ‘Trieste, James Joyce e il Cinema: Storia di Mondi Possibili’, curated by Erik Schneider, who also spoke at the conference on the discoveries he made in the archives about Joyce’s brief foray into cinema management and cinema in Trieste generally. The reason for the Trieste connection is that Joyce – who was living in the city in 1909 as a language teacher – joined up with some local businessmen who ran cinemas in Trieste and Bucharest and offered to help extend their circuit to Ireland by setting up the Volta Cinematograph at 45 Mary Street, Dublin, in December 1909.

Report (in Italian) on the Joyce exhibition and screening of Volta films, from the Trieste Film Festival’s YouTube channel

Joyce was manager on the cinema for a few weeks only before handing over to Lorenzo Novak (the cinema was sold at a loss in June 1910), but enough exists in the archives to reveal a rich history. The above video, from the Trieste Film Festival (which housed a complementary Joyce film season), shows the exhibition, with contributions from assorted brainy Joyceans, plus scenes from an evening of films taken from the BFI National Archive which were known to have been shown at the Volta. You can see me, mercifully briefly, introducing the show (with much habitual hand-waving), Carlo Moser at the piano, and Paolo Venier heroically hand-cranking a Pathé projector for the whole show (with gaps in between each reel as the films were changed, giving the full house a taste of the authentic 1909 cinema experience).

The films shown were:

  • Une Pouponiere a Paris (France 1909) (first shown at the Volta 20 Dec 1909)
  • Francesca da Rimini, or the two brothers (USA 1907) (6-7 Jan 1910)
  • Come Cretinetti paga I debiti (Italy 1909) (17-19 Jan 1910)
  • Il signor Testardo (Italy 1909) (17-19 Jan 1910)
  • A glass of goat’s milk (GB 1909) (3-5 Feb 1910)
  • The Way of the Cross (USA 1909) (14-16 Feb 1910)
  • (Der Kleine Schlaumeier) [original title not known] (France c.1909) (21-23 Feb 1910)
  • (Hunting Crocodiles) (France 1909) (7-9 Mar 1910)
  • Une Conquete (France 1909) (10-12 March 1910)

(Note – some of the films are possibily those shown at the Volta, and are not definite identifications. Le Huguenot (France 1909), which was advertised for the festival, wasn’t shown)

Also shown was Georges Mendel’s 1908 opera film of the sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor (with Enrico Caruso’s voice) as an example of the synchronised sound film Joyce wanted to show at the Volta, but never did.

For me, the most remarkable discovery in the exhibition was Joyce’s own hand-written list of expenses at the Volta for its first three or four weeks, from the collection of Cornell University Library, accompanied by a letter from Pathé in Britain advising him on the choice of projector, lenses, light source and so forth. Joyce’s venture into cinema, though short-lived, generated a significant amount of information on cinema in 1909 to make it worthy of study for those interested in general cinema history. We know the identity many of the films shown, thanks to extensive advertising in the Dublin press; we have the contracts drawn up; we know the initial expenses; we know about the background business in Trieste; we know how the cinema was decorated; we have the names of three or four of the staff (such as Lennie Collinge, the projectionist who lived long into a ripe old age and was interviewed by film historian Liam O’Leary, who first uncovered the Volta history). What we don’t have, alas, is a contemporary photograph of the cinema, interior or exterior.

There is much in the exhibition on early cinema in Trieste itself, which had a remarkable twenty-one cinemas in 1909. There is a history of cinema in Trieste, 1896-1918, written by Dejan Kosanovic, though in Italian only. Another gem from the archives was the advertised programme for Lifka’s Bioscope, a travelling film show which visited Pola in December 1904, when James and Nora Joyce attended the show. Joyce wrote to his brother Stanislaus: “The other evening we went to a bioscope. There were a series of pictures about betrayed Gretchen … Lothario throws her into the river and rushes off, followed by rabble. Nora said ‘O, policeman, catch him'”. I’m working on trying to identify which film moved Nora so. Would you believe Lifka’s Bioscope mostly got its film from Charles Urban…?

Anyway, a stimulating conference, a fine exhibition, and bright winter’s sunshine to delight us all.


Statue of James Joyce by the Canal Grande, Trieste

8 responses

  1. Thanks Joe. Trieste is a lovely city. Being in the conference I didn’t see that much of the main Trieste Film Festival that was going on all around me, which seemed well-organised and inventive. It ought to have a higher international profile than it does.

  2. Woman being chucked in a river, and a pursuit by a rabble?? Sounds like something William Haggar might have filmed in ’04….

  3. Indeed it does. One of the remarkable documents on display at the exhibition is two programmes for Lifka’s Bioscope either side of the date Joyce wrote his letter, when the show visited Pola. The programme is in Italian, and I haven’t got out the Italian-English dictionary on this yet, but some of the films are of the Russo-Japanese War, and appears to be the Sheffield Photo Company’s A Daring Daylight Burglary. Both of those were made and in the latter case distributed by Urban. Nothing that looks like a women being thrown in a river as yet, but I’ll report back when I’ve found more. There’s quite a game to be played, spotting films Joyce may have seen (or programmed) and then detecting traces of them in his fiction.

  4. Thank you for all the information about the conference. Hanns Zischler (also known as a actor in films of Wenders) who has in 1996 published a unique and wonderful and also very handsome book about Kafka and his cinema experiences – it is actually a panoramic book about the writer and visual culture around 1910 – has work for a long time on Joyce and the cinema and published in 2008 a book on Joyce and the fait divers (NASE FUER NEUIGKEITEN) which contains much information about Lifkas ambulant cinema (but little about the volta-side). Did Hanns Zischler also participte in the symposium?

  5. I thought Zischler might have turned up – he would have been an obvious choice – but sadly no. As you say, his new book on Joyce and film (which is only published in German) focusses on the films Joyce saw at Lifka’s bioscope in Pola in 1904. I’ve not seen it yet, and I don’t know how far he goes in identifying the films (does he pin down the film that so moved Nora to call upon the policeman to catch the wicked lover?). His researcher contacted me a couple years ago asking about the Volta films, and I’m surprised that he hasn’t concentrated much on that episode.

  6. Pingback: Roll away the reel world « The Bioscope

  7. I have eighteen large pictures that I have painted, one for each chapter of “Ulysses”. They were exhibited last year at the Bloomsday Festival in Dublin and the exhibition was opened in a gallery on St Stephen’s Green. I am an established painter and ex- art school Principal. I would like to exhibit them again in Trieste or sell them. Can anyone help? Peter

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