Eclipse Series 14:Rossellini’s History Films—Renaissance and Enlightenment


“At a certain point, I felt so useless!” said Roberto Rossellini. Never before had technology accomplished such miracles. Yet everywhere the world was confronting crises. Never before had civilization so needed us all to understand the great problems—food, water, energy. Yet everywhere, especially in contemporary art, there was nothing but cruelty and complaining. The mass media, Rossellini charged, were accomplishing “a sort of cretinization of adults.” Rather than illuminate people, their great effort seemed to be to subjugate them, “to create slaves who think they’re free.”

And Rossellini himself? He felt useless.

“By 1958,” said François Truffaut, “Rossellini was well aware that his films were not like those of other people, but he very sensibly decided that it was the others who ought to change.”

“There doesn’t exist a technique for grasping reality,” Rossellini ­insisted. “Only a moral position can do so. The camera’s a ballpoint pen, an imbecile; it’s not worth anything if you don’t have anything to say. To discuss cinema today in strictly aesthetic terms is arid and useless. There’s only a single question: how to awaken consciences? ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,’ said Rousseau.”

He called a news conference and announced, “Cinema is dead.”

“He was as excited as a boy about television,” said director Ermanno Olmi, “but mostly he was fired up about putting history into images, the history of humanity, the facts, the fundamental and significant moments . . . And he told me about this history of iron, of how it had changed people’s economy and life.”

“A guy who starts filming the history of iron does look ridiculous,” Rossellini admitted.

Ridiculous or not, Rossellini’s efforts, from 1959 until halted by death in 1977, would yield some forty-two hours of “didactic” movies, mostly for television. Audiences would judge them boring, historians deficient, and critics unappealing; their emotional and artistic riches have still only begun to be acknowledged beyond a devout coterie. Even Truffaut told Rossellini he was wasting his time. And Rossellini, all the while denying (with patent hypocrisy) that he was trying to “make art,” would go ahead, determined to do what he could to “revise the whole conception of the universe,” as he put it.

Rossellini outlined a vast plan not to recount but to relive the history of human knowledge in hundreds of movies. “The slightest act of daily life contains extraordinary dramatic power,” he said. He wanted to send film crews all over the world. He could not understand why other film­makers, Fellini in particular, were not willing to drop their own projects and undertake his instead. “The world should expect something from intellectuals and artists, a clarifying function, a compass,” Rossellini argued, not just navel-gazing.

To finance his project, Rossellini sought out corporations and appealed to the educational obligations of state television in Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Romania, and Egypt.

To say, as many have, that these movies lack acting, psychoanalysis, Murnau-like expressionism, overwhelming emotions, and the richest cinematic art is akin to closing one’s eyes at high noon and claiming the sun no longer exists.


Said Rossellini around 1973: “I no longer consider myself to be an artist of the cinema, one of that godlike coterie of directors producing masterpieces to stun the world. I now see myself as scientist and craftsman. For me, Shakespeare and Rembrandt and Matisse were also scientists. The cinema must become scientific, it must learn to dispense knowledge and awareness.”

Accordingly, The Age of the Medici, made during the productive period of 1970–73, presents Renaissance art as an instrument of research ­rather than self-expression. Rossellini is attacking conventional attitudes toward art. His quattrocento Florentines admire Brunelleschi’s cathedral dome not for its beauty, like tourists today, but as a materialization of Brunelleschi’s wonderful calculations, which are wonderful because they show how intelligence can raise the level of human civilization. Art is politics. Obviously, too, it is money—“the root of all civilization,” according to Will Durant, an incomprehensible miracle, according to Rossellini: witness how the music chirps with delight at the apparition of a bag of gold.

A banker and an art theorist are the heroes of Rossellini’s movie: Cosimo de’ Medici (1389–1464) and Leon Battista Alberti (1404–72).

Is Rossellini’s reliving of Florence accurate? Of course not; how could it be? It is easy in a book to write, “Cosimo de’ Medici greeted the Venetian ambassador.” It is something else to provide the clothing, room, furnishings, ambience, lighting, not to mention the words, vocal tones, comportment, emotions, and actual bodies of Cosimo and the ambassador. All this must inevitably be inaccurate in a movie. What were people like then? What was Florence like? We can only imagine, like Walt Disney, Rossellini, or even Giotto.

Rossellini’s Cosimo has to be experienced as we would any other movie character. Whatever Cosimo was like in reality, now he must be interesting and empathetic. For it is in our experience of the people that we relive the Florentine Renaissance and decide what it means to us today.

The Renaissance was a way of life and thought. So Rossellini, like Renoir in French Cancan, has imagined a city in the style of its contemporary visual chroniclers, its painters: Piero della Francesca, Paolo Uccello, Fra Angelico, Masaccio, Antonello da Messina. In certain wonderful moments, when the characters are most inseparable from their milieu, like people portrayed in a quattrocento picture, they seem to jump out of the background and to talk and act the way we might imagine people in quattrocento paintings would, if quattrocento paintings were also movies. Like it or not, what will be most “real” in Rossellini’s movie Florence will be not its authentic relics of the past—the churches, statues, and paintings—but its movie Cosimo and its movie Alberti.

Cosimo is a joy to hear and watch. The slightly archaic dialogue “wears” expressively on his frame, which moves sinuously and sexily, a quattrocento vampire. He dresses in black, dissimulates perpetually, slinks across rooms, speaks as from a crypt, stares piercingly even as he averts his eyes. As with Louis XIV, it is fear that prompts Cosimo’s taking of power and deforms him. But Louis makes a world to hide in, Cosimo a world to expand in. The actor, Marcello Di Falco, was twenty-nine, a cashier at Rome’s Piper Club, and Rossellini had him accentuate his already feline way of moving.

The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, Socrates, Blaise Pascal, Cartesius, and Augustine of Hippo are horror movies with instants of elation. The Age of the Medici is elation. Florence’s exploited workers are unseen and unmentioned, Cosimo’s malevolence is minimized, no one gets sick, nothing is dirty, there is no sex and virtually no women, the charming Alberti of history is reduced to a dry pedant. Instead, there is the exhilaration of a glorious, youthful adventure in which one delight after another is discovered. Music rhapsodizes this poetry—not Mario Nascimbene’s synthesizer, as in the other television movies, but a wistful, tuneful score by Vittorio De Sica’s son Manuel. Under a big blue sky, a storybook world beckons: witness the merchant Wadding’s buoyant voyage from London, the soldiers who tell him about Joan of Arc, the rural lord who bemoans innovations, and, as Wadding rides over a hill, his first sight of Florence, an emerald city, like Oz, a wondrous new world.

We taste the sensuous ecstasy of knowing, which makes the film’s inaccura­cies less damning. It is less a documentary than a poem to kindle spirits.

Any history is a series of choices, a synthesis of events vaguely known, formed into a story that is meaningful for us today, hence partly myth. History, like painting in Alberti’s day, confronts an enigmatic world and makes sense of it by creating a substitute world. The reality we live in has been created by generations past. The Renaissance goal was to make our world a product of research, not just fantasy.

It is difficult to disagree (much) with Noam Chomsky’s verdict that “the real world bears little resemblance to the dreamy fantasies . . . about History converging to an ideal of liberal democracy that is the ultimate realization of Freedom.” But Rossellini is not suggesting that it does. Quite the contrary. He insists we must impose our fantasy on History and make a new reality. The Renaissance’s response to problems, he argues, was for artists to become savants, whereas in our own time we wallow in alienation. The Age of the Medici suggests we can know. Is any movie more optimistic?

The Age of the Medici cost $725,000, financed by Italian television, and was filmed in August and September 1972 in Gubbio, Todi, Fiesole, Certaldo, and Florence, with the actors speaking English, then (like nearly all Italian films) dubbed in various languages, with minimum or no supervision by Rossellini. The reason for English was hope of selling it to American Public Broadcasting, which declined. It was telecast in Italy in three episodes in 1972–73. Rossellini’s refusal to give dates or explain who people are has annoyed some audiences. “It’s up to the spectators to do that,” he retorted. “It’s as though we had a plate of good pasta in front of us. You want to wait and swallow it only after I’ve digested it. Disgusting.”


In Roberto Rossellini’s films about them, Descartes, Pascal, and Socrates argue incessantly for the superiority of reason. But in all three cases, their emotional deficiencies cast doubt on the wisdom of their obsession. “Science prevented me from living,” Descartes himself concludes. Still, for Rossellini, it’s “crazies” like these men who make new realities.

In Descartes’ day, sensible people questioned the crazies who, for example, claimed the earth moved around the sun, since not only did everyone know the earth stayed still but in this biblical truth they founded their faith, than which nothing was more essential. By what right did self-proclaimed “science” contradict Holy Scripture? René Descartes (1596–1650), a devout Catholic, refused to question his church. But on the other hand, he was stunned by the world’s ignorance and inspired by the gains in knowledge made by science and reason. Therefore he sought reasons to trust reason.

Rossellini is moved less by Descartes’ philosophy in the abstract than by the anguish with which he pursues his obsession. Action and drama in Cartesius are entirely inside Descartes’ head, where thought and emotion are locked in deadening struggle—and where perhaps something is amiss. “I’ve closed myself up, alone, in this room for many days,” Descartes says. “I shall close my eyes, I shall close my ears, I shall extinguish my senses . . . spend time only, only with myself.” Here truly is involution. Descartes’ crisis is existential, yet he excavates for salvation deep inside syllogisms.

Rossellini said his idea for the movie came from a book by Benedetto Croce, who thought Descartes hopelessly abstract. Yet Rossellini felt that if he could translate the “incredible chaos of the times” into his movie, “viewers would understand immediately why Descartes felt the need to write a Discourse on Method.” Rossellini described Descartes as less likable than Pascal, even “a son of a bitch, a coward, a lazy person. He was quite repulsive, of course, not simpatico. But I don’t care about that. He was intelligent.”

Cartesius cost about $130,000 and was financed by Italian and French television. Rossellini had planned to shoot in France, in English, with an American actor playing Descartes, for American television. The French were unhappy with English and an American in a French movie on Descartes. When the smoke cleared in February 1973, the production had moved to locations near Rome, an Italian was playing Descartes (Ugo Cardea), and on the first morning the actors learned they would enunciate brand-new dialogue in French. French television refused the film, however, for lack of authenticity, so, ultimately, it was dubbed into Italian and shown only in Italy.

Cardea wanted to proclaim Descartes’ famous line “I think, therefore I am.” But Rossellini said, “Say it as if you’re buying cigarettes. Do you think Descartes was figuring out that moment what he was saying? He’d been thinking about it all his life, which is why he’d say it now without any particular expression.”


Blaise Pascal follows the mathematician and philosopher (1623–62) from age seventeen till his death at thirty-nine. As for Pascal’s significance, we might  get a simpler idea from a paragraph in a desk encyclo­pedia. In the movie, it’s the daily life of the seventeenth century we live, and it’s up to us to decide  why he is important.

What it was like to be a Jansenist, for example, we’ll drink in from Pascal’s large crucifix and his sister’s constant fright. The desk encyclopedia will tell us Jansenism was a severe Catholic movement condemned by the Jesuits, who have yet to recover from Pascal’s brilliant rebuttals in The Provincial Letters. Rossellini does not give those explanations. He gives masses of black, white, and scarlet; passion music; a world drenched in torture and ignorance, with everyone writhing in desperate faith and pain.

“Art can make you understand through emotion what you are absolutely incapable of understanding through intellect,” Rossellini declared—like Pascal, who argues that we see and communicate with the heart in ways beyond the ability of reason. It’s not enough to watch Rossellini’s movies; we have to live them with our hearts.

Rossellini poses Pascal as a corrective to Descartes’ overemphasis on reason—even to the extent of staging a confrontation between the two heroes that never occurred in life.

For Pascal, Rossellini picked an actor, Pierre Arditi, who looked like a “thinking reed,” Pascal’s famous definition of man. “[Rossellini] told me, ‘I can make a chair act,’” said Arditi, “and I am a chair in the film, a good chair, but a chair all the same. He controlled me like a guinea pig to whom one says, ‘Go right, go left.’ I went right, left, I put my hand like this. At the moment of the ‘Memorial,’ the discovery of God, my hand had to go down like this, and then my head fall like this, and then I had to fall down because I finally had the revelation of God. It’s the most successful scene in the film, but I had no voice in it. He based all his work on a style of gesture that was so precise that it ended up giving you the inner feelings.” The nonactor playing Descartes, Claude Baks, was given his lines only two minutes beforehand, then required to read them while walking on a high, crooked board—which made him nervous and produced the character.

It is less important that we follow Pascal’s arguments than that we relate to his emotions in making those arguments. Like Descartes, he lives in a world full of opinions but void of knowledge, one that employs a logic to torture a “witch” that is systematized terror. Like Descartes, Pascal sought an anchor in life; unlike Descartes, he found it in faith.

Blaise Pascal was financed by French and Italian television, at a cost of $160,000, and was shot in Italy in just seventeen days, with most of the actors speaking French. It was shown on Italian television in two episodes in May 1972. Sixteen million watched it. Book sales leapt.

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