How Postwar Italian Cinema Created La Dolce Vita and Then the Paparazzi

Those who love the work of Fed­eri­co Felli­ni must envy any­one who sees La Dolce Vita for the first time. But today such a view­er, how­ev­er over­whelmed by the lav­ish cin­e­mat­ic feast laid before his eyes, will won­der if giv­ing the intru­sive tabloid pho­tog­ra­ph­er friend of Mar­cel­lo Mas­troian­ni’s pro­tag­o­nist the name “Paparaz­zo” isn’t a bit on the nose. Unlike La Dolce Vita’s first audi­ences in 1960, we’ve been hear­ing about real-life paparazzi through­out most all of our lives, and thus may not real­ize that the word itself orig­i­nal­ly derives from Fellini’s mas­ter­piece. Each time we refer to the paparazzi, we pay trib­ute to Paparaz­zo.

In the video essay above, Evan Puschak (bet­ter known as the Nerd­writer) traces the ori­gins of paparazzi: not just the word, but the often both­er­some pro­fes­sion­als denot­ed by the word. The sto­ry begins with the dic­ta­tor Ben­i­to Mus­soli­ni, an “avid movie fan and fan­boy of film stars” who wrote “more than 100 fawn­ing let­ters to Amer­i­can actress Ani­ta Page, includ­ing sev­er­al mar­riage pro­pos­als.” Know­ing full well “the emo­tion­al pow­er of cin­e­ma as a tool for pro­pa­gan­da and build­ing 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 the Sec­ond World War, Cinecit­tà became a vast refugee camp. When peace­time returned, with “the stu­dio space being used and Mus­solin­i’s thumb removed, a new wave of film­mak­ers took to the streets of Rome to make movies about real life in post­war Italy.” Thus began the age of Ital­ian Neo­re­al­ism, which brought forth such now-clas­sic pic­tures as Rober­to Rossellini’s Rome, Open City and Vit­to­rio De Sica’s Bicy­cle Thieves. In the nine­teen-fifties, major Amer­i­can pro­duc­tions start­ed com­ing to Rome: Quo Vadis, Roman Hol­i­day, Ben-Hur, Cleopa­tra. (It was this era, sure­ly, that inspired an eleven-year-old named Mar­tin Scors­ese to sto­ry­board a Roman epic of his own.) All of this cre­at­ed an era known as “Hol­ly­wood on the Tiber.”

For a few years, says Puschak, “the Via Vene­to was the coolest place in the world.” Yet “while the glit­terati cavort­ed in chic bars and clubs, thou­sands of oth­ers strug­gled to find their place in the post­war econ­o­my.” Some turned to tourist pho­tog­ra­phy, and “soon found they could make even more mon­ey snap­ping pho­tos of celebri­ties.” It was the most noto­ri­ous of these, the “Volpe di via Vene­to” Tazio Sec­chiaroli, to whom Felli­ni reached out ask­ing for sto­ries he could include in the film that would become La Dolce Vita. The new­ly chris­tened paparazzi were soon seen as the only ones who could bring “the gods of our cul­ture down to the messy earth.” These six decades lat­er, of course, celebri­ties do it to them­selves, social media hav­ing turned each of us — famous or oth­er­wise — into our own Paparaz­zo.

Relat­ed con­tent:

“The Cin­e­mat­ic Uni­verse”: A Video Essay on How Films Cin­e­ma­tize Cities & Places, from Man­hat­tan to Nashville, Rome, Open City to Taipei Sto­ry

Fed­eri­co Felli­ni Intro­duces Him­self to Amer­i­ca in Exper­i­men­tal 1969 Doc­u­men­tary

Cin­e­mat­ic Exper­i­ment: What Hap­pens When The Bicy­cle Thief’s Direc­tor and Gone With the Wind’s Pro­duc­er Edit the Same Film

Cinecit­tà Luce and Google to Bring Italy’s Largest Film Archive to YouTube

Mus­soli­ni Sends to Amer­i­ca a Hap­py Mes­sage, Full of Friend­ly Feel­ings, in Eng­lish (1927)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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 @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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