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.)
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.
A selection of their works is being offered in the 20/21st Century: Evening Sale Including Thinking Italian on 15 October at Christie’s in London. These include Kounellis’s Untitled (1960), above, a large-scale painting from his breakthrough ‘Alfabeti’ series.
Upon a blank ground some two metres wide, a cryptic array of letters and numbers unfolds. Loosely organised in two horizontal rows, they read: ‘S Z Z E / 4 X 4 S’.
Stripped of context, they become floating shapes of mysterious, untold meaning. Kounellis was exploring the way we use numbers and letters to try to impose order upon the chaos of human existence.
Another standout lot is Alberto Burri’s Ferro (1959), above. The artist 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 (of which Ferro forms part), 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.
In Rome at the same time as Kounellis and Burri was Giorgio de Chirico, whose painting Le Muse Inquietanti (1959) also comes to auction. It’s a reworking of his masterpiece of the same name from more than four decades earlier. Throughout his career, de Chirico liked revisiting work from his early days, believing that the idea behind a picture was more important than the artefact itself.
The original version was a significant influence on the nascent Surrealist movement, and one can easily see why. It features a group of mannequins inspired by classical statues, standing in a shadowy, sharply perspectival town square that’s covered in floorboards.
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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.