The Years of La Dolce Vita At Estorick Collection

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, when it briefly made financial sense to shoot the likes of Cleopatra and Ben-Hur in authentic old-world locations, Hollywood descended on Rome.

What this showcase reveals is how much of a culture-clash this wasn’t. Thanks to the directors Fellini, Antonioni and Pasolini, the natives had a prolific film scene, as well as newspapers hungry for intimate snaps of the American beauties who had decamped to the nation’s film studios.

This photography showcase is as much a shrine to the talents of the early Italian paparazzi as to the stars themselves. It almost entirely comprises the work of Marcello Geppetti – whose collection is said to number one million photos, and who inspired a character in the Fellini flick La Dolce Vita, wherein the word ‘paparazzi’ was actually coined.

In Geppetti’s shots, film sets overspill into Rome’s city centre, creating moments of high drama. Michele Mercier faints in the street. Michelle Morgan loses a shoe on a zebra crossing as onlooking Italian motorists prepare, presumably, a cacophony of hooting. Frank Sinatra and a heavy leave a club looking, mysteriously, like they’ve seen a ghost. All could be melodramatic vignettes from La Dolce Vita itself.

Then there are moments of intense normality. Lauren Bacall slurps a 99 flake. James Stewart and family pose for a pic on their Roman holiday, the teenage sons sulking. Photos of celebs doing ordinary things command a particular fascination, and we’re granted access to scenes of the Beatles wrestling hand luggage off a passenger plane, and Audrey Hepburn buying potatoes.

This, you feel, was a time when being photographed doing even this stuff was still flattering – although the tide was beginning to turn. The seeds of Hello and OK! are sown in some cracking club entry/exit pictures. In one, Mickey Hargitay is chucking Jane Mansfield into the back of a car, both giggling; her shoes already off and her dress almost likewise. The eroticism is as latent in Geppetti’s infamous snap of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s adulterous kiss, also on show.

Pioneering photojournalists or not, in 1960 this paparazzi would have seemed a million miles from the diffident American press. Occasionally, Mediterranean tempers flare, and the stars who came to Italy with the explicit purpose of being filmed lay into the picture-takers. Most comical is the sight of Anita Eckberg rushing to confront the paps with a bow and arrow.

But by and large, the stars and the snappers enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship. In one superb shot, a radiant and polka-dot-short-clad Brigitte Bardot turns away from an encampment of photographers; her smile seemingly just for Geppetti. Another shows a casual wave from Robert Kennedy, comfortable being spotted in public. Barely a year later, he’d be shot dead in a hotel.

Several photos at the end verify that the ambience on set was as convivial as the ambience on the Via Veneto. In one, Fellini toys with the hair of actress Nico. He and Geppetti were cut from the same cloth: drawn to sexiness, fashion and to the bright lights, but also to the everyday. Our favourite picture shows Fellini at his desk, apparently mid-casting session. There’s a particular look of anxiety about him, his hand over his mouth, buried by stacks of gorgeous actor headshots. It might as well be Geppetti’s self-portrait: lusty, if bemused, and probably in a little too deep.

The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, 39a Canonbury Square, London N1 2AN, entrance is £5; £3.50 for concessions and £2.50 for National Art Pass; free to children and students with NUS card. The Years of La Dolce Vita runs until 29 June.

By James FitzGerald 

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