World Film Locations: Florence

World Film Locations: Florence

by Alberto Zambenedetti


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Florence, with its rich history, privileged place in the canon of Western art, and long-standing relationship with the moving image, is a cinematic city equal to Venice or Rome. This edition in the well-established World Film Locations series explores Florence as it is manifested in the minds of filmmakers and filmgoers. Contributors to the collection consider a wide range of topics, including the tourist’s perception of Florence, representations of art and artists on screen, the camera-friendly Tuscan countryside and mouthwatering local cuisine, and filmic adaptations of canonical Italian literature. Through scene reviews of films including Bobby Deerfield, A Room with a View, Tea with Mussolini, and Under the Tuscan Sun, contributors delve deeper into the makeup of the city, looking at both familiar and unfamiliar locations through the lens of such filmmakers as Roberto Rossellini, Mario Monicelli, Brian DePalma, and Ridley Scott.

From the Duomo to the Uffizi gallery, Florence is filled with history, art, and culture. For those who crave a passport to this Tuscan capital, World Film Locations: Florence will take you there without you ever having to leave your library.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783203604
Publisher: Intellect, Limited
Publication date: 10/15/2014
Series: Intellect Books - World Film Locations Series
Pages: 128
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Alberto Zambenedetti is a visiting assistant professor of cinema studies and Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Oberlin College. 

Read an Excerpt

World Film Locations Florence

By Alberto Zambenedetti

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2014 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78320-360-4



City of the Imagination


* * *

THE CITY THAT GAVE BIRTH to the Italian Renaissance has quite fittingly had a long-standing relationship with the visual arts, including cinema and photography. Florence's picture-perfect cityscape and breath-taking countryside have been utilized by numerous film-makers to varying results: while some integrated the landscape into their filmic discourse with truly remarkable skill, others were unable to master its complexity and flattened it to make it fit their forgettable, bi-dimensional movie postcards. Yet cameras from around the world return routinely, undeterred, to try to capture the famously ideal urban environment, its surrounding hills, and the picturesque towns that dot the Tuscan countryside. Far from the result of some utopian urban plan, Florence's beauty was forged by centuries of conflict, back-room dealings, flimsy allegiances and murderous betrayals. Its famous architectural and artistic landmarks are, more often than not, the fruit of an aggressive patronage of the arts that was born out of a desire to upstage rivals rather than to enrich the cultural landscape. To quote Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)

You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

The Renaissance, widely acknowledged as the most important and influential cultural and artistic moment of the second millennium, has been at the centre of many cinematic investigations, from artist biopics to period dramas, from adaptations of literary masterpieces to spoofs and comedies. Perhaps inspired by Harry Lime's quip, Sir Carol Reed himself directed The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), a biography of Michelangelo played by a tormented Charlton Heston opposite Rex Harrison as an often-irate Pope Julius II. Still the golden standard for biopics of mercurial Tuscan artists, Reed's film had many successors, including Una vita scellerata/A Violent Life (Giacomo Battiato, 1990), which draws from Benvenuto Cellini's own account Vita, written by the artist between 1558 and 1562. While Leonardo da Vinci appears as a character in hundreds of titles, he becomes the protagonist only in the 1971 miniseries La vita di Leonardo da Vinci/The Life of Leonardo da Vinci (RAI Radio Televisione Italiana), directed by Renato Castellani and starring the suave French actor Philippe Leroy as the eccentric Tuscan genius.

The Grand Tour brought many educated travellers to Florence; eager to experience first-hand its artistic treasures, these illustrious tourists recorded their journeys in travelogues that would become essential reads, such as William Thomas Beckford's Dreams, Walking Thoughts and Incidents (1783) or Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Italian Journey (1816–17). The modern equivalents of these volumes are the many films that use Italy's landscape as a backdrop for journeys of self-discovery, such as Under the Tuscan Sun (Audrey Wells, 2003), based on the 1996 bestseller by Frances Mayes, or the Ryan Murphy-helmed blockbuster Eat, Pray, Love (2010), a globally inclined descendant of the Florence-centred classic Light in the Piazza (Guy Green, 1962), in turn based on the eponymous, bigoted 1960 novella by Elizabeth Spencer. But not all the (primarily female) descendants of Grand Tourists consume the Tuscan landscape, food and men, with nonchalant levity: Jane Campion's ambitious 1996 adaptation of Henry James's The Portrait of a Ladyis a brooding affair that approaches themes of love, lust and obsession with the appropriate gravitas.

While Florence's art and architecture have been at the centre of many foreign productions, domestic film-makers have focused more on what it means to be from Tuscany and, specifically, to have Florentine origins. Struggling under the enormous weight of its prestigious history, humble characters move through the lesser travelled corners of the city, sometimes plagued by a sense of melancholy and nostalgia, such as in the mid-century adaptations of Vasco Pratolini's eponymous novels Cronache di poveri amanti/Chronicle of Poor Lovers (Carlo Lizzani, 1954) and Le ragazze di San Frediano/ The Girls of San Frediano (Valerio Zurlini, 1955). In an Italy struggling to find its moral compass, disoriented by 21 years of Fascism and World War II, these films provided a comforting picture of a humble, hard-working, well-meaning, yet somewhat provincial country on the brink of the epochal socio-economical shift that would later be known as the economic boom. At the same time, films like Porta un bacione a Firenze/Give Florence a Kiss for Me (Camillo Mastrocinque, 1956) constituted a domestic alternative to the Technicolor spectacles manufactured by the rising 'Hollywood on the Tiber'.

The long tradition of humour and satirical pamphleteering in Florence, and Tuscany at large, find their cinematic equivalent in the work of the Giancattivi trio (Francesco Nuti, Alessandro Benvenuti and Athina Cenci), the globally recognizable Roberto Benigni and Leonardo Pieraccioni, among others. Pieraccioni's 1995 debut I laureati/The Graduates, for example, wittily tackled the issue of Italian 'mammoni' (menchildren) by investigating the lives of four thirty-something men sharing an apartment in Florence; unfortunately, the director subsequently lost his bite and retreated into the facile formulas of romantic comedies, casting himself as a lead against the tabloid bombshell of the hour. Conversely, the resilience of Benigni's quintessentially Tuscan humour – an eclectic mix of lowbrow jokes and highbrow references, sometimes delivered in song – has characterized his long and successful career up to his Oscar- winning performance in La Vita è bella/Life is Beautiful (1997). Co-written and directed by Benigni, the film is set in an idealized Tuscan town – a composite of Arezzo, Montevarchi, Castiglion Fiorentino, Cortona, Ronciglione, Rome and Papigno. Lastly, in their debut film Ad ovest di Paperino/West of Paperino (Alessandro Benvenuti, 1982), the Giancattivi comedians painted the Florentine landscape in a light much different from that of the Grand Tour films: far from the pristine urban extravaganza that perhaps existed only in the Anglo-Saxon imagination, Florence becomes a city like any other, in which the rich and the poor must uneasily co-exist, and in which beauty and dreariness often cross each other's paths.




Florence and Foreign Consumption


* * *

IN THE FILM ADAPTATION of E. M. Forster's 1908 A Room with a View (James Ivory, 1985), a young Englishwoman, Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter), is taken on a carriage ride through the Tuscan countryside. During the journey she declares that she is a tourist, happy to be sent like a parcel from Venice to Florence, Florence to Rome. Tourism, certainly as far as Italy is concerned, is a vestige of the European Grand Tour, which had its origins amongst the British aristocratic classes of the seventeenth century. Filtering down through society from the nobility to the wealthy and then to the middle classes, this extended visit operated as an instructive rite of passage, with a fairly standard itinerary through France and Italy in a quest for art and culture, with consideration of the natural beauty afforded by the landscape a later addition. The principal purpose of the Grand Tour was to present the cultural legacy of classical antiquity and the Renaissance to these travellers, as well as introduce them to fashionable European society, and give them the opportunity to acquire artefacts and antiquities. Florence was one of the key sites on the itinerary, with a visit to the Duomo and the Uffizi Gallery being considered as essential.

The Portrait of a Lady (Jane Campion, 1996) and Room with a View are both partially set in Florence. The films share a number of themes, since the protagonist of each is a young woman whose life will be changed forever following a trip to Italy. Both narratives address the issue of personal freedom or the lack of it as well as demonstrating the contrast in the ways of life at home and abroad. The aroused sensuality felt by the female protagonists is contrasted with the restricting mores of their times in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, in comparison with A Room with a View and also Tea with Mussolini (Franco Zeffirelli, 1999), The Portrait of a Lady shows little of the tourist aspect of Florence. When the monuments of the city, such as the Duomo, are displayed in Campion's work, they are seen at unsettling oblique angles suggestive of turmoil in the state of mind of the young female protagonist, Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman). The elaborate, opulent and sometimes overwhelming interior mise-en-scène serves as the backdrop to the increasingly suffocating relationship between Isabel and her husband Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), rather than being examples of Italian design and cultural artefacts.

In A Room with a View, Florence and the Italian way of life is under the close scrutiny of the Edwardian English upper-middle-classes. The narrative tells of the sexual awakening of the heroine, Lucy, thanks to the liberating effects of the Tuscan countryside and the Latin temperament. On the one hand, the English characters are shocked at the brutality and passion they witness, which contrasts with the genteel, but frequently artificial, nature of the English way of life; on the other, they are seduced by the loveliness of both the natural (Tuscany) and manmade (Florence) environments they have come to observe. Novelist Eleanor Lavish (Judi Dench) treats the visit to the city as a great adventure. She despises those visitors who slavishly follow their Baedeker travel guides, and aims for a more spontaneous experience. As though dealing with wildlife specimens, she finds 'the Italians unspoiled in all their simplicity and charm'. Lucy, in contrast, describes the Italians as being 'so kind, so loveable' but 'at the same time so violent'. In the Piazza della Signoria Lucy witnesses a fatal stabbing at close hand. The photos that she had purchased only moments before, as a souvenir of the beauty of the square, are spoiled by the blood of the murder victim. On the journey into the countryside surrounding the city, Lucy watches the amorous behaviour of the young Italian carriage driver and his sweetheart through the binoculars with which she is supposed to be surveying the landscape. The guileless actions of the Italians are condemned by the Reverend Mr Eager, and yet, later on, it is the intuitive understanding of this driver which engineers the meeting and subsequent kiss between Lucy and George Emerson (Julian Sands). After a period of confusion and indecision back at home, Lucy finally rejects her stiff, affected English fiancé, Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis) in favour of George, the man she fell in love with in Italy. The final scene reveals a happy ending, following the marriage of Lucy and George. The couple sit by an open window, with a view of Florence in the background. Lucy's soft, casual clothing and her tumbled hair show the transfigured, passionate protagonist who might appear as the heroine in the latest novel by Eleanor Lavish.

A more nuanced, and sometimes jaded, perspective of the Italians is given by the resident English ex-patriots in 1930s Florence in Tea with Mussolini. The film opens in the English Cemetery by the tomb of the English poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who with her husband, Robert Browning, made Italy her home for fifteen years in the nineteenth century. The choice of this figure and this particular location serves to reinforce the notion of the strong links forged between the two countries at that time, and highlights the shocking nature of the events in World War II which damaged these bonds. There is a similar contrast between nations made in this film, but the transformative power comes not from the Italians or their city, but from the spirit of the Scorpioni (scorpions), a small group of elderly English ladies who lived in Florence in the 1930s and 1940s. Once again playing the role of the artistic Englishwoman abroad, Judi Dench as Arabella says the Italians are 'not like us cold English', and, referring to the cultural heritage of the country, she declares, 'I've warmed both hands before the fires of Michelangelo and Botticelli.'

The choice of Florence as a setting for these films offers the spectator a visual and narrative comparison between, on the one hand England and America, and on the other Italy, based on an Anglo-Saxon notion of the Italian stereotype, which suggests that Italians are passionate and pleasure-loving, artistic and impulsive, musical and imaginative, religious and revengeful.

ROMOLA (1924)


The Arno River

A FLORENCE BESET BY religious and political turmoil furnishes the backdrop for Henry King's adaptation of the George Eliot novel (1862–63). Set in the year 1492, King unfurls a story of adventure and romance into streets populated by such historical figures as the firebrand preacher, Savonarola (Herbert Grimwood), and the opulent Medici family. The film begins with the main character, Tito Malemma (William Powell), and his encounter with the esteemed scholar Bardo Bardi (Bonaventura Ibáñez), who mistakes Tito for a respected man of letters. Tito seizes on this error to enter high society through a propitious marriage to Romola (Lillian Gish), Bardi's daughter, despite already being married to and fathering a child with the milkmaid Tessa (Dorothy Gish). When Romola realizes she has been duped and Tito attempts to usurp the city's throne, the Florentines turn against him, forcing him from a window into the river below. We first see shots of the river early in the film when Tito courts Tessa. There, King embeds the two star-crossed lovers in the idyll of the city's central waterway. When he plunges into the river to escape, however, the comedy and romance that dominate much of the film fade into tragedy. Tito allows Tessa to sink to the river's bottom then is drowned by the father he betrayed. The ominous swirl of the Arno's deadly current makes a perfect complement to the tempestuous love-triangle portrayed in the film, as well as the turbulence of fifteenth-century Florence.



Loggia dei Lanzi, Piazza della Signoria

CONDOTTIERI IS BASED on the life of Giovanni de' Medici (1498–1526), better known as Giovanni dalle Bande Nere. Father of Cosimo il Primo, the first Duke of Florence, Giovanni was a mercenary soldier (condottiere) that fought first for Pope Leo X and then for Charles V. Director Luis Trenker depicts this historical figure in a way that is consistent with Fascist propaganda. In fact, in Condottieri Giovanni is a charismatic leader, who aims to expel foreigners from Italy and to create a unified state; therefore, the director establishes a clear parallel between Giovanni and Benito Mussolini. In the course of the film the protagonist gets into a fight with the Florentine Signoria, whose members are interested in maintaining their power and in opposing Giovanni's nationalist goals. Trenker depicts this clash through the representation of Florence's monuments and urban space. Giovanni appears as the leader of the common people, and his purity and authenticity differ from the lavish court-life of the elitist Florentine rulers. Giovanni's manners and his rough physique strongly contrast with the elegant Renaissance and Mannerist sculptures set in Piazza della Signoria. Michelangelo's David (1501–04) and Baccio Bandinelli's Hercules ad Cacus (1534), located in front of Palazzo Vecchio, and Benvenuto Cellini's Perseus with the Head of Medusa (1545), located under the Loggia dei Lanzi, the arched structure built between 1376 and 1382 by Benci di Cione and Simone di Francesco Talenti, are in Trenker's film the negative expression of Florence's powerful and threatening government. Roberto Vezzani


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Table of Contents

Florence: City of the Imagination
Alberto Zambenedetti
Views from the Grand Tour(ist): Florence and Foreign Consumption
Eleanor Andrews

Scenes 1-8
Florentine Artists on Film: Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci
Nathaniel J. Donahue

Scenes 9-15

Florence after Dark: Cops, Crime and Serial Killers
Dom Holdaway

Scenes 16-22

Rolling Hills, Scorching Sun: Filming the Tuscan Countryside
Pasquale Iannone

Scenes 23-29

Bread, Wine and Celluloid: Tuscan Cuisine at the Movies
Brendan Hennessey

Scenes 30-36
From Dante to Machiavelli: Canonical Florentine Literature on Film
Barbara Garbin
Scenes 37-43
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