Cinecittà Shows Off: At Rome’s Legendary Studios, Fellini’s “Dolce Vita” to HBO’s “Ancient” Rome

Costumes from Fellini films in the background, with pictures of previous movies in foreground, Cinecitta, Rome

Until Nov. 30, Cinecittà Studios — the former haunt of everyone from Federico Fellini to Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor to Roberto Rossellini — are open for visitors as part of the show "Cinecittà Si Mostra." 

I checked this out on the opening day for a story for Global Post, and the show is definitely cool. It's a neat chance to get a glimpse at the movie studio so legendary, it was called "Hollywood on the Tiber" — and that was the set for hundreds of movies, including Cleopatra, La Dolce Vita, War and Peace, Roman Holiday, Ben-Hur, and, more recently, Gangs of New York, Nine, Mission Impossible 3, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou… to name a few.

In one building, an exhibit has been set up that walks you through the making of a movie, from the costumes to set design to post-production.

Costumes from Cinecitta si MostraThe downside? It's in Italian, and not super-elaborate. The upside? The items that are included. The costumes: Elizabeth Taylor's gold gown and intricate wig as Cleopatra, Sean Connery's habit as a friar in The Name of the Rose, the papal vestments worn for this year's Cannes-destined film Habemus Papum (latter two, shown above). The accessories (below): Pilot's goggles from The English Patient, gladiator's armor from the HBO/BBC series Rome. The items from past sets, including the dolphin-shaped statue that marked the chariot laps in Ben-Hur and the throne from Cleopatra. And sketches of the set design for previous movies.

Accessories from past movies at Cinecitta si Mostra In the second building — the Palazzina Fellini, dedicated by the studios to the great director — more costumes (my favorites: the glittering white dress that Audrey Hepburn wore in the War and Peace posters, and the slinky velvet dress and fur stole donned by Anita Ekberg for La Dolce Vita, shown at top). More photographs. And, in the theater of the Palazzina, a film showing. (All, however, in Italian).

The pièce de résistance of the exhibit, though, is the chance to peek at the sets themselves. A black Mercedes van scoops you up (at least, it was a Mercedes on the opening day!) and takes you through a street designed for Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York before plopping you in what can be best described as a whacked-out version of ancient Rome, designed for the television series (below).

Here's a Rome where, true to historical authenticity, the temples were colorfully painted, graffiti splotched monuments, and tenement buildings ran several stories tall. Here, too, is a Rome where those buildings are fiberglass, the other side of a major temple is the city wall, and behind graffiti-splotched walls are… nothing. Ah, the tricks of the movie business.

The "Suburra" from the film set for Rome at Cinecitta studios Part of the "forum" of the film set for Rome, Cinecitta The "Via Sacra" on set from Cinecitta Si Mostra

All in all, the show didn't have quite as much to offer as I thought, in terms of sheer exhibit space and items (although the items that were shown, like the costumes, were pretty cool). The Italian-only signs and movies might be frustrating for English speakers. And even the set of ancient Rome could be a little disappointing: They say the set is 4 acres, but the part you're actually allowed to explore seems to be much smaller.

Still, if you're a movie buff or simply looking to do something a little different (or to walk through a version of ancient Rome, no matter how whacky it is), this is the place to come.

The Cinecittà Si Mostra exhibit runs until Nov. 30. Tickets cost €10; the studios, and exhibit entrance, are right at the Cinecittà metro stop (about a 25-minute ride from Termini). The exhibit is open daily from 10:30am-7:30pm, except Tuesdays (making it a good option on Monday, when all the other museums are closed!). And here's my Global Post article, for more on Cinecittà and on Rome's film industry.

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(Fun!) Books for Readin’ Up on Rome

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So you're coming to Rome… but you don't know much (or maybe at all!) about its history or art or sites, and the idea of digging into that thick old Rough Guide you've got is less appealing than gelato in a snowstorm. What do you do?

Crack the books — the fun ones, that is.

Really. There are fun books about Rome that you can actually (gasp!) learn from. And even if you don't remember the ins and outs of what you read by the time you get here, hopefully all that educational entertainment will have done something every bit as important: made you excited to see the forum, the Vatican, or whatever it is that you only originally put on your list because, well, it sounded important.

A caveat: I'm only recommending books here that I've read. And I know I'm missing lots of great ones. So, have you read an excellent book or novel about Rome? Put it in the comments!

Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, Ross King. I still haven't read The Agony and the Ecstasy (I know, I know)… but I have to say that, for me, it'll be hard to beat King's version of the Michelangelo-versus-the-pope knockdown. King is the guy who wrote Brunelleschi's Dome — also a recommendation, if you're heading to Florence. And he has a knack for narrative that will have you hanging on every twist and turn in the Sistine Chapel saga.

Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff. This brand-new take on the woman history loves to hate wasn't quite as groundbreaking as it promised to be. After all, it's hard to completely reset someone's reputation when the only surviving sources about them come from their enemies. Even so, Schiff gets pretty close, trying to shine a light through the sources' (fortunately predictable) biases to illuminate who the real woman would have been. But all that aside, Cleopatra is, on its own, an addictive biography. You know how it all ends, but you can't help turning the page for more, more, more of this confident, extraordinary, anything-but-promiscuous woman Schiff paints for us. Plus, while most of the book deals with Alexandria, its section on what Rome would have looked like to Cleopatra on her visit (in brief: a backwater) is pretty entertaining.

Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter's, R. A. Scott. She's been slammed for some historical inaccuracies, but there's no denying that Scott's a storyteller. And deserves major kudos for telling the sweeping 200-year history of St. Peter's Basilica with both page-turning speed and colorful details (Michelangelo didn't just "make his escape"; he made it "wrapped in a lavendar cloak the color of dusk, riding headlong against a sharp north wind"). The enormity of the basilica, and its history, here comes compact (less than 300 quick-read pages). That's a downside if you plan to be the next big St. Peter's Basilica expert… but a positive if you don't want your head to hurt.

Caesar: Life of a Colossus, Adrian Goldsworthy. He's the most famous Roman to have lived, and Goldsworthy does him justice. In this fat (632-page) but readable biography, he delves into the man behind the myth, from the stand-up to Sulla that got the 18-year-old banished from Rome right up to the world-rocking murder… with all of the juicy betrayals, affairs and shenanigans in between. Better yet is Goldsworthy's deftness in contextualizing Caesar and exposing the Republic's "rot". Be warned, there's a lot of detail here, and it might be little much for anyone who's not already drawn to the Roman Republic or Caesar himself. But for geeks like me those who want a real grasp on the guy who changed it all, it's just right.

Rome: The Biography of a City, Christopher Hibbert. For those who want the whole history, told in a relatively comprehensive and non-textbook kind of way, this is the big daddy. Hibbert's book takes you right through from 753 B.C. to the 20th century. It's hefty, but readable — although this is one I wouldn't go for until you're already pretty interested in the city. It also comes with a handy section on the history of individual sites in Rome, even the more minor.

The Smiles of Rome: A Literary Companion for Readers and Travelers, Susan Cahill. If you want something that you can pick up, put down, pick up, put down, look no further. This anthology of works by writers who lived in, or visited, Rome — from Ovid to Fellini, Henry James to John Updike — is full of by turns poignant, cutting, and witty impressions of the city. At the end of each piece, there are suggestions for a walk you can take that incorporates the sites written about.

Next on my list (what should I add?):

Livia, Empress of Rome: A Biography, by Matthew Dennison

The Pope's Daughter: The Extraordinary Life of Felice della Rovere, by Caroline Murphy

How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower, by Adrian Goldsworthy

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