guided tour

Behind the Scenes at Cinecittà, Rome’s Legendary Studio

Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

There are only a handful of movie studios whose names ring with history. This is one of them. The longtime home of Federico Fellini, who shot La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, and many of his other films there, Rome’s Cinecittà — the largest studio in Europe — has also played host to Ben-Hur, Roman Holiday, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, The English Patient, The Passion of the Christ, and Gangs of New York. On April 28, Cinecittà will celebrate its 75th anniversary. Here are a few shots from the other side of the iconic front gates.

Officially opened on April 28, 1937, by Benito Mussolini, who built it partly as a location to shoot propaganda (he once said “movies are the mightiest weapon”), Cinecittà, or “cinema city,” is the largest film facility in continental Europe. Located in the southern suburbs of Rome, Cinecittà’s iconic modernist front gates lead to a 99-acre complex that houses 22 soundstages and one giant outdoor water tank.
This backlot set was built for the HBO/BBC series Rome, which ran for two seasons. But over the years, many of Hollywood’s great Roman–set epics have been filmed here, including Cleopatra and Ben-Hur. For the 1951 film Quo Vadis, starring Deborah Kerr and Peter Ustinov, a lengthy stretch of ancient Rome’s Appian Way was rebuilt at Cinecittà.
In 2007, a fire broke out in Cinecittà and destroyed a large piece of the set for HBO’s Rome, which was built out of wood and other easily flammable materials. This section, showing ancient Roman graffitti, survived. Luckily for the show, primary photography had already been completed. Luckily for cinema history, the fire did not spread to the complex’s more famous section, like Stage 5, the longtime home of Italian director Federico Fellini.
Feliini so loved Cinecittà that he installed an office atop Stage 5, which is the massive soundstage where he filmed such movies a La dolce vita, Satyricon, Amarcord, and 8 1/2. One of Il Maestro’s (as he was nicknamed) last films was 1987’s Intervista, a docufictional work in which Fellini is followed around Cinecittà by a Japanese TV crew. Here, a prop destined for a coffee commercial sits outside Stage 5, which is also rented out occasionally for galas and fancy dinners.
Fellini’s office has since been moved from the top of Stage Five to a separate location. His iconic hat and scarf rest entombed in a glass case. Sitting nearby is this shooting truck, on which the director would place cameras for tracking shots.
In the fifties and sixties, Hollywood descended upon Cinecittà, and it briefly became known as “Hollywood on the Tiber.” In addition to the aforementioned Roman epics, Roman Holiday and The Pink Panther were all filmed there. More recently, Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna, Mission: Impossible 3, The Passion of the Christ and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou were partially shot on the premises. Most famous, though, was Martin Scorsese’s production of The Gangs of New York. Cinecittà’s giant water tank, seen here, doubled as Manhattan Harbor.
Relics from the more than 3,000 movies shot on Cinecittà often result in odd juxtapositions. On the other side of this recreation of a 14th century Italian village plaza sits a 260-foot replica of a World War II submarine, left over from the filming of 2000’s U-571.
One of the things that makes Cinecittà so appealing to filmmakers is that is a full-service film complex: Everything from pre- to postproduction can be done on its premises. For four generations, members of the De Angelis family have used their workshop to create props. They are some of the last such craftsmen left at Cinecittà.
Fabio Febbi, an apprentice at the De Angelis workshop, works on a piece for an upcoming production.
Adriano De Angelis stands next to one of the fish from the galley in Ben Hur. Adriano, along with his sons Angelo and Alessandro, knows the story behind each of the thousands of items in his workshop.
Cinecittà’s museum holds costumes from many of the studio’s famous productions. At left is the black dress and white stole worn by Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita’s famous Fontana Di Trevi scene. At right are costumes from Fellini’s 1986 film Ginger and Fred.
In 1997, in order to prevent the studio from going bankrupt, the Italian government sold more than 70 percent of it to private investors. In 2011, the studio was yet again under financial duress until the government stepped in with a tax package meant to lure productions from abroad. There have also been talks of possibly opening a hotel to attract conventions and other such events.
Behind the Scenes at Cinecittà: 75 Years of Film