How post-war Italian cinema created the Dolce Vita and then the paparazzi
Those who love the work of Federico Fellini must envy anyone who sees The good life for the first time. But today, such a viewer, so overwhelmed by the sumptuous cinematic feast before his eyes, will wonder if giving the name “Paparazzo” to the intrusive tabloid photographer friend of Marcello Mastroianni’s protagonist is not a bit on the nose. Contrary to The good lifeIn 1960, we’ve heard of actual paparazzi throughout our lives, and so we may not realize that the word itself originally derives from Fellini’s masterpiece. Whenever we talk about paparazzi, we pay homage to Paparazzo.
In the video essay above, Evan Puschak (better known as The Nerdwriter) traces the origins of the paparazzi: not just the word, but the often troublesome professionals referred to by the word. The story begins with dictator Benito Mussolini, an “avid movie buff and movie star fanboy” who wrote “more than 100 flattering letters to American actress Anita Page, including several marriage proposals”. Knowing very well “the emotional power of cinema as a tool of propaganda and construction of cultural prestige”, Mussolini commissioned the construction of Rome’s Cinecittà, the largest film studio complex in Europe when it opened in 1937 – six years before his fall from power.
During World War II, Cinecittà became a large refugee camp. When peacetime returned, with “studio space used up and Mussolini’s thumb removed, a new wave of filmmakers took to the streets of Rome to make films about real life in post-Italy.” -war”. Thus began the era of Italian neorealism, which produced now classic images like those of Roberto Rossellini. Rome, open city and Vittorio De Sica Bike thieves. In the 1950s, major American productions began to come to Rome: Quo Vadis, roman holidays, Ben Hur, Cleopatra. (It was surely this era that inspired an eleven-year-old named Martin Scorsese to script his own Roman epic.) All of this created an era known as “Hollywood on the Tiber.”
For a few years, says Puschak, “Via Veneto was the coolest place in the world.” Yet “while celebrities frolicked in posh bars and clubs, thousands more struggled to find their place in the post-war economy”. Some turned to tourist photography and “quickly found they could make even more money taking photos of celebrities.” It was the most notorious of them, the “Volpe di via Veneto” Tazio Secchiaroli, whom Fellini reached out to ask for stories he could include in the film that would become The good life. The newly baptized paparazzi were quickly seen as the only ones capable of bringing “the gods of our culture down to the messed up earth”. These six decades later, of course, celebrities are doing it to themselves, as social media has turned each of us – famous or not – into our very own Paparazzo.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts about cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter city books, the book The Stateless City: A Walk Through 21st Century Los Angeles and the video series The city in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshallon Facebook or Instagram.