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Cinematographeum silens - Resurrecting Ancient Rome Through Silent Film

August 19, 2015
Stefano Maccagno accompanying the screening of Mario Caserini and Eleuterio Rodolfi’s Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (1913).
Audience gathers for screening.
Screening of Mario Caserini and Eleuterio Rodolfi’s Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (1913).
Screening of Mario Caserini and Eleuterio Rodolfi’s Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (1913).
Latin professor Maria Wyke.
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Ancient Rome was fast-forwarded to the twentieth century at this year’s Jerome lecture series, delivered by the eminent Latin professor Maria Wyke from University College London (UCL). One of the world’s leading experts on the ancient world in cinema, Wyke shared her passion for silent film in three lectures, including an exclusive screening of Mario Caserini and Eleuterio Rodolfi’s Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (1913).

Over one hundred viewers came to watch the two hour-long silent film, which was projected in Rome’s first cinema, inaugurated in 1910 in Palazzo Altemps and now hosts the National Roman Museum. Framed by a magnificent gilt-edged arc and frescoed ceilings, the space is one of the oldest private theatres of Rome. The viewing of the recently restored film retrieved from the Cineteca di Bologna was rendered even more authentic with the inspired and effortless piano accompaniment of the Turinese virtuoso Stefano Maccagno.

Adapted from British Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1834 novel, The Last Days of Pompei had everyone craning forward, unexpectedly riveted to the flickering screen where mute actors and actresses interpreted a plot of Ancient Roman love, intrigue and madness in brightly changing colors of orange, blue, pink and green. “I think as a Classicist who has always loved Ancient Rome, I find it a very engaging and emotive experience to watch these films,” said Wyke. “You feel like you’re being drawn into the Ancient World in that period because silent films are much richer aesthetically in terms of their relationship to other representations of Ancient Rome. They are constantly referencing paintings, historical novels or opera and using classical sculpture because it’s a period when audiences were more familiar with other representations of the Ancient World.”

While Wyke’s may seem a very niche interest in today’s context, the theme of the Ancient World was one of the most favored periods in the past in Europe and the North America. Leading us on an international adventure into her world of silent film, Wyke began in France in the late 1890s, moved to Italy in the 1910s and ended in the United States in the 1920s. With an erudite and eclectic array of references from biblical passages to Breughel’s paintings and from Racine to Freud and Ridley Scott, Wyke decoded the complex language of theatrical gestures, Roman outfits and symbolic meanings in the forgotten clips she had discovered in archives in the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands and the United States. As she continues to research silent films of Ancient Rome, Wyke has been adding musical scores to the films she finds to match the emotional mood she discerns, bringing them back to life for a contemporary audience.