La Dolce Vita – the birth of celebrity culture

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On this day 54 years ago, Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita – or ‘the sweet life’ – won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Plenty of films have won that coveted prize and been forgotten, but Fellini’s film has lived on, because his depiction of a bored reporter touring Rome on his scooter on the hunt for the rich and fun-loving celebrities entered our general lexicon, giving us the term ‘paparazzo’.

The sweet life wasn’t just a creation of Fellini’s imagination; in the 1950s and ’60s, Rome was the global epicentre of the film industry. It was, according to a new exhibition, like “an open-air film set”.

Italy’s best-ever directors – names like Fellini, Pasolini, Antonioni and De Sica – were producing their best work, just as the American studios cottoned on to the low costs of the now legendary Cinecittà studios.


In bars and clubs like Strega, Rosati and Club 84 in the Via Veneto part of town, the New Europe actresses Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot and Claudia Cardinale rubbed shoulders with established Hollywood stars Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Mansfield and Raquel Welch.

The local press photographers – more refined versions of the paparazzi of today – were always at hand. The images they created became iconised, creating a cult of celebrities at play that remains potent today.

The paps would hide in bushes, wear disguises and pursue their targets throughout the city on scooters, and their over-exposed, spontaneous images are now talked of as works of art. They were “documentarians of postmodern culture”, wrote Maureen Callahan of The New York Post, challenging the very concept of photojournalism.

A cosier relationship existed back then, with trusted photographers given the most intimate access to celebrities at play. The archives of the more gilded photographers Marcello Geppetti (“the most undervalued photographer in history”, according to the exhibition), Felice Quinto and Arturo Zavattini – a director in his own right – are now on display at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in Islington, London.

We’re given pictures of John Wayne teetering proudly on the edge of a fountain after a few too many Camparis, Audrey Hepburn emerging from a grocer’s shop, Raquel Welch dancing on a table at Cinecittà, or the Swedish model Anita Ekberg – whose dance in Rome’s Trevi fountain became La Dolce Vita’s defining image – driving a Mercedes through the centre of town and then, remarkably, stepping out of her vehicle to aim a bow and arrow at the men chasing her with their cameras.

At this point, the paps had already upset Ekberg, catching a clandestine kiss with a married movie producer at a cafe in Rome. The late Quinto, known as ‘The King of the Paparazzi’, told ABC News that Ekberg shot arrows at him as he stood outside her home at five in the morning. One struck him in the hand.

Quinto had no regrets. “People are human,” he said in 1997. “They want to see these pictures, and there is too much money to be made.”

“It is clear we live in a new era of devastating visual pollution from every point of view,” the exhibition’s curator Massimiliano Di Liberto says. “This rapid fading of news, of facts and of images, produces a disturbing feeling of vertigo. It is not images that we lack, it is the ability to select them.”

The Years of La Dolce Vita positions itself as a sort of high-minded tonic to today’s excess, yet the exhibition is subtitled The Birth of Celebrity Culture; it is a paradoxical celebration of celebrity as an ideal, in all its guilty, projected and voyeuristic pleasures.

“A joyously apocalyptic sketch of contemporary society” is how Fellini’s lead Marcello Mastroianni described La Dolce Vita. “We start along the road to decay in this way,” he said. “Happily, living cheerfully.”

That idea of innocence on a precipice is the subtext to this exhibition. It’s best captured by one of the exhibition’s centrepiece images: Geppetti’s long-lensed shot of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. It was June 1962, and the pair were in Rome to play lovers in the ruinously over-budgeted 20th Century Fox production of Cleopatra. Away from the spotlight, sunbathing on a yacht in Ischia off the coast of Naples, they lean in to share a kiss.

Geppetti was present in the moment, capturing with a long lens a picture of idyllic, carefree intensity; it could be a posed still from a movie.

It was in fact an illicit private moment. The pair were both married – Burton to the former actress Sybil Williams, with whom he shared two daughters, one autistic, and Taylor to the singer Eddie Fisher, whom she ‘stole’ from the all-American actress Debbie Reynolds.

Geppetti’s picture is paparazzi folklore. The Vatican denounced Taylor’s affair with Burton as “erotic vagrancy” as the image appeared on magazine covers throughout the world. They divorced their separate partners and embarked on a horrifyingly fraught and public relationship. The Burtons would marry and divorce on two separate occasions, each perpetuating in the other an ongoing struggle with alcoholism. Richard Burton famously said the only word Taylor knew in Italian was “Bulgari.” After their first divorce, he said of their relationship: “You can’t keep clapping a couple of sticks of dynamite together without expecting them to blow up.”

Did Geppetti’s image spark this domino’s row of events? Maybe so. But one thing can’t be denied: celebrities go further than ever before to protect their private lives, even as they post anodyne images of themselves to millions of Instagram and Twitter followers. If Rome was the golden age of the paparazzi, then that age is dead. We are further down the road of decay and, in this post-post-modern world, those first intrusive photos are now artefacts of high art.

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