Crucibles of art: Rome in the 1950s and 1960s

How the Italian capital rose from the ashes of the Second World War to become a global centre of creativity in design, cinema and the visual arts. Illustrated with works offered at Christie’s

Rome, July 1960. Trails of light made by passing cars give an impressionistic look to the Colosseum

Rome, July 1960. Trails of light made by passing cars give an impressionistic look to the Colosseum. Photo: Bettmann / Getty Images

Just as it had been 1,500 years earlier, when it was sacked by Alaric and his Goths, Rome in 1945 stood devastated. The city had suffered the twin ordeals of occupation by the Nazis and aerial bombardment by the Allies in the Second World War.

One need only watch a few minutes of the Italian Neorealist films from the time, by directors such as Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, to get a sense of the poverty and struggle.

What happened next, however, was remarkable: namely, an economic, cultural and political renewal — known in Italian as Il Boom — that turned Rome into the coolest city on Earth.

A crucial factor was Marshall Plan aid from the United States, which — in a bid to save Italy from the clutches of Communism — poured billions of dollars into the country’s economy.

Industrial production grew at eye-popping speed. Where Italy manufactured 18,500 fridges in 1951, for example, that figure reached 3.2 million in 1967. Production of washing machines (such as Zanussi), cars (such as Fiat), motor scooters (such as Vespa), shoes (such as Salvatore Ferragamo) and typewriters (such as Olivetti) increased at a similar rate.

These goods catered to a newly developed consumer society at home — as well as myriad customers abroad, attracted by the sleekly elegant design of Italian brands.

According to the historian Paul Ginsborg, in his book A History of Contemporary Italy, income per capita grew faster in Italy between 1950 and 1970 than in any other European nation.

In politics, meanwhile, both the monarchy and the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini were consigned to the past. Italy declared itself a republic in 1946. In the ensuing years, it became a founding member of NATO and the European Economic Community (EEC).

And then there was culture. Unlike Paris, Berlin or Moscow, the Italian capital had seen little that was artistically daring in the first half of the 20th century. That was now to change, most notably with a boom in movie production that saw Rome nicknamed ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’. (American film companies were lured there by low costs and stunning locations.)

Charlton Heston on the set of Ben-our, Rome, May 1958

Rome, May 1958. Charlton Heston takes a spin in a four-horse chariot, while training for the big chariot racing scene in the film Ben-Hur. Photo: Bettmann / Getty Images

International movie stars who flocked to work at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios included Audrey Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Humphrey Bogart and Elizabeth Taylor — producing smash-hit pictures such as Quo Vadis (1951), Roman Holiday (1953), Ben-Hur (1959) and Cleopatra (1963).

The title of a much-loved Italian film shot at Cinecittà — Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita — has come to be used as a shorthand for the whole era. It translates as ‘the sweet life’.

In short, Rome was once more living up to Goethe’s description of it in the late 18th century as ‘the First City of the World’. As a sign of its rediscovered stature, it was invited to host the 1960 Olympic Games.

It was in this context that several first-rate visual artists made careers in the city. A few, such as the American Cy Twombly and Jannis Kounellis from Greece, came from abroad; others, among them Piero Dorazio, Domenico Gnoli and Tano Festa, were born-and-bred Romans; while many, such as Alberto Burri, were attracted from elsewhere in Italy — as Raphael and Michelangelo had been centuries earlier.

Some of these figures started movements — the abstractionists of the Forma 1 group in the late 1940s and early 1950s, for example. However, in the main, what really united Rome’s artists in the post-war years was their individuality and personal vision.

Jannis Kounellis (1936-2017), Senza titolo, 1985-95. Iron, lead, burlap sacks and copper (gas cylinder). 213.4 x 375.9 x 12.7 cm. Offered in 20th/21st Century Milan Online Sale on 23 November to 5 December 2023 at Christie’s Online

Burri was a pioneer of what is often called ‘the deconstruction of painting’. Which is to say, he rejected traditional oil on canvas and used unorthodox materials and techniques instead.

In the case of his celebrated ‘Ferri’ series, Burri scorched, cut and welded sheets of cold-rolled steel before mounting them on a support and hanging them on the wall. (He achieved variations in colour by adjusting the heat of his flame.) The end-result is a captivating patchwork of jagged, soldered metal.

Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), Cavalli e cavalieri. Oil on canvas cardboard. 29.7 x 39.8 cm. Offered in 20th/21st Century Milan Online Sale on 23 November to 5 December 2023 at Christie’s Online

In Rome at the same time as Kounellis and Burri was Giorgio de Chirico. Throughout his career, de Chirico liked mining his past and revisiting works from his early days, believing that the idea behind a picture was more important than the artefact itself.

His early, pre-war canvases were a significant influence on the nascent Surrealist movement, and one can easily see why. The artist’s metaphysical compositions often feature Classical statues and lonely figures amid sharply perspectival town squares wreathed in oblique shadows and bizarre juxtapositions.

Sign up for Going Once, a weekly newsletter delivering our top stories and art market insights to your inbox

In his 2011 book Rome, charting the history of the Eternal City, the art critic Robert Hughes described his subject as an ‘enormous concretion of human glory and human error’. By which he meant that, across millennia, Rome has seen many great highs and many great lows. The 1950s and 1960s surely rank among the former, and visual artists more than played their part.

Related departments

Related lots

Related auctions

Related content