DOLCE VITA CONFIDENTIAL: Fellini, Loren, Pucci, Paparazzi, and the Swinging High Life of 1950s Rome, by Shawn Levy. W.W. Norton & Co., 447 pp., $27.95.
When the journalist, cartoonist, and aspiring filmmaker Federico Fellini first visited the upper end of Via Veneto — Rome’s bustling corridor of bohemian camaraderie and jet-set dissipation — a few years after World War II, he was stunned. “To my scared provincial eyes,” he would later recall, “it wasn’t even Rome — it was some fairy-tale vision, Monte Carlo or Baghdad.”
A decade later, his movie about Via Veneto’s habitués would be world famous, and Rome would have emerged from the war’s ruins as a lodestar of style and modernity. The story of how this happened is the focus of Shawn Levy’s entertaining but overstuffed “Dolce Vita Confidential: Fellini, Loren, Pucci, Paparazzi, and the Swinging High Life of 1950s Rome.”
“The energy that would ignite Via Veneto was known, in Italy, as Il Boom — a breakneck economic and cultural revival and expansion of the nation,” Levy writes. Billions of dollars in Marshall Plan loans helped fuel it. Cinecittà — the huge movie studio Mussolini built outside Rome in 1937 — resumed production, after serving as a refugee camp.
This risorgimento wasn’t limited to the capital, a point Levy makes while sidestepping its conflict with his Rome-centric view. To compete with Paris, then the unconquerable center of fashion, a Florentine businessman organized a showcase for Italian designers in Florence in 1951, highlighting the work of, among others, Emilio Pucci; it would become an enormous annual event known as the Sala Bianca. Brioni, founded in Rome, presented the world’s first male runway model in Florence the following year.
“The vibrant and playful air that characterized the clothing that Italians were designing for women felt like a refreshing breeze,” Levy writes. “[Brioni’s] breakdown of the Savile Row men’s suit into a more form-fitting look was more like a tornado.” Within a few years, exports of Italian clothing to the United States had quintupled.
Hollywood paid attention. “Roman Holiday,” released in 1953, depicted a city “steeped in novelty, romance, gaiety, and vitality,” prompting a flood of American movies filmed in Rome and drawing countless stars to the hotels and nightspots around Via Veneto. Aggressive photographers made their living there, feeding the public’s insatiable hunger for candid pictures.
Levy’s research is deep and his details are revealing. But with so much ground to cover, “Dolce Vita Confidential” sometimes feels like a catalog of postwar Italian culture, from fotoromanzi magazines to Vespas and Lambrettas. Levy, a former film critic for The Oregonian and the author of books about Paul Newman, Jerry Lewis and the Rat Pack, is on strongest footing when discussing cinema and sybarites. The book comes alive halfway through its 400 pages, when he offers a virtuosic portrayal of the “slumming aristocrats” who populated Via Veneto — among them the impetuous Spanish playboy Fon de Portago, whose astounding life and horrific, spectacular death Levy recounts at length.
These colorful characters, and the photographers who hounded them, stirred Fellini to make “La Dolce Vita,” which drew adulation, condemnation and enormous audiences upon its release in 1960. Its star, Marcello Mastroianni, was costumed in Brioni suits. Many of its indelible images were inspired by actual events recorded in the Italian press: the opening shot of a Jesus statue carried over Rome by helicopter; the Swedish bombshell Anita Ekberg striding into the Trevi Fountain; the concluding orgiastic striptease. Levy chronicles Fellini and Mastroianni’s collaboration with insight and affection.
He also admires Sophia Loren, whose rise from dire poverty to global stardom he describes with occasional sentimentality and overstatement. Regarding her giving birth to her first child at age 34, he writes: “It would be an irony, given how quickly she had risen in her career and at how young an age, that motherhood, the role she wanted most to play, eluded her for so long.”
The book’s biggest surprise is its grudging respect for paparazzi — a term that “La Dolce Vita” gave the world by way of its photographer character, Paparazzo. Levy seeks to distinguish the first wave of these “brash and clever and opportunistic” men who exposed (and often incited) celebrities’ antics on Via Veneto from the pestilent hacks who came after, arguing that they were hardworking photojournalists and even — dare one say it? — artists. But their behavior in the trenches — they called themselves, among other things, “assault photographers” — undermines his case.
Movie stars lost patience with them early on. Late one evening in Rome a few months after the release of “La Dolce Vita,” paparazzi followed Ekberg home and loitered outside. She soon re-emerged with a bow and arrows and took deadly aim. No one was hurt, but one arrow grazed a photographer’s hand. You could call it a taste of their own medicina.