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The historical imagination of Cabiria

Lecture presented by Dr Tiziana Ferrero-Regis, QUT, Creative Industries Faculty at the Australian Cinémathèque, Gallery of Modern Art, Wednesday 26 May 2010, as part of the Extravagant Cinema: From Cabiria to the Inferno program

The birth of Italian cinema coincided with the troubled process of nation making. The country was politically united in 1870, but deep-seated internal divisions and disastrous economic conditions in the lower classes were a threat to national unity. In 1895 and 1896, when the Kinetoscope Edison first and then the Cinematographe Lumière arrived in Turin, Milan and Rome, Italy was a young nation that was trying to define her borders with respect to the neighbouring states and beyond Europe with colonialist ventures. Italy was trying to establish itself as a prestigious state within Europe and the international dissemination of history films well served the state in this sense. But internally, a common sentiment of nationalistic belonging had neither been an element of unity between the North and the South of the country, nor between the elite and the lower classes. In a much quoted phrase, Massimo D’Azeglio’s famous saying “We have made Italy; now we must make Italians”, inspired the policy of the Liberal elite that ruled Italy from 1879 to the Fascist period.

Cinema started to establish itself as a viable industry and as a popular cultural practice from 1905 on, but especially from after 1909, with history films. The Siege of Rome was released in 1905 and is considered as the first Italian film with a narrative construction. The film shows the conquest of Rome in 1870 by the King Vittorio Emanuele’s Army. This was the final battle against the papal troops, which concluded the Italian Risorgimento – the fifty-five year long struggle for Italian unification. The film appeared in a period of intense social conflict and glorified the actions of the House of Savoy and the military class in their battle for the unification of the country. After The Siege of Rome, other successful history films were produced, so that the historical genre became the pick of Italian cinema production on international markets. But history films were successful also nationally. The style, codes, symbols and ideologies of these films merged productively in such a way that they offered domestic audiences the images and the symbols of a national culture and national identity that was scarce in other cultural production.

However, it is true that there was a fertile background to the production of history films. Popular novels such as Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii  had circulated in Italy since 1865 and provided the bulk of the narrative for Luigi Maggi’s film Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (The last Days of Pompeii, 1908), and Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis? was translated into film by Enrico Guazzoni in 1913 became the first film set in ancient Rome. Domestic popular novels such as Spartaco, by Raffaello Giovagnoli, inspired a series of films with the same title. Serial films intensified from 1909 onwards with characters like Spartacus, Ursus, Maciste and gladiators. After the success of Cabiria, Maciste became a popular icon. All these characters were slaves and were engaged in struggles against injustice. But as the 1910s were ending and Fascism was looming, these characters were increasingly busy in protecting the status quo. Thus we see Maciste, in a 1919 film, Maciste Innamorato (Maciste in Love), capturing and punishing three unionists who are engaged in setting up criminal plans against an industrialist.

In the last decade of the nineteenth century, Italy was dealing with the birth of a strong labour movement, peasant struggles, riots and press censorship. The monarchy was determined to repress the revolts and thus reacted with extreme violence and special laws designed to dismantle the workers’ movement. In the meantime, Italian foreign policy looked outwards to stretch the country’s borders into the Mediterranean area. A national campaign compared the colonialist adventures in the Mediterranean Sea to the Roman Empire, and likewise, colonialism would open the road to civilization and modernity against barbarianism. The first wave of industrialization, poor lower class conditions and protests of various groups, including Catholics, against colonial war, generated social conflict, which found a site of representation in historical narratives. Italian cinema did not explore the causes of the decline and disintegration of the Roman Empire, rather those of the formation and triumph of the Roman Empire because the representation of the grandeur of the imperial past could communicate the re-birth of the nation. The sub-text of this operation was the construction of a unified sense of the nation and of citizenship.

Popular national history: Cabiria

The production of history films based on the triumph of the Roman Empire opened up what can be called the “phenomenon of serialisation”.  This definition is based on the quantity and persistence of historical fictions in a given period, in which subjects and characters are serialized, as in the case of Maciste (we can draw a current parallel with Star Trek). This serialisation contributed to the establishment of an international popular culture and taste that the diffusion of cinema helped broaden.

The popularity of history films also built on the reputation of traditional cultural forms that united high and popular culture, such as theatre, circus, opera and the commedia dell’arte. Films combined the epic with the spectacle offered by monumental landscapes, large sets and art. Wars and turmoils were represented as melodrama. History films borrowed narrative lines from historical novels and feuilletons, in which young bold men fall in love with innocent frail heroines, the good giant resolves dangerous situations and rescues virtuous young girls with his sheer force, and slaves and wet nurses are faithful to the master. These stories were dramatised with natural catastrophe, as in the explosion of volcanoes, or with wars and clashes between factions. All these elements are present in virtually all the history films of Italian silent cinema.

Cabiria is a monumental combination of all this symbolism, intertextual and literary, but also is a result of innovation in technological achievements, production and distribution efforts. The film is an essential text in the understanding of Italian silent film. It had a large number of reviews when it appeared and it was subsequently studied and analysed as the masterpiece of the time. In other words, Cabiria is the peak of the historical genre and fully belongs to its own time.

Cabiria was directed by Giovanni Pastrone and released in 1914. It is a historical interpretation of the Punic wars of the third century BC, but its subtext alludes to the Italian-Libyan war of 1911-1912. In fact, Giovanni Pastrone had started pre-production in 1912, just after the end of the Italian colonial venture in Libya. Within the classical culture that dominated Italian society at the time, Cabiria’s Carthage was the symbol of the African opposition to Roman imperialism, as much as the opening of a colony in Libya was fundamental to the establishment of Italy as a colonial empire.

In the first segment of the film, when Etna erupts and covers Batto’s villa with lava, Batto’s slaves plunder the house before escaping. With them is Croessa, little Cabiria’s nurse, who saves her from the lava. They are taken prisoner by a group of Phoenician pirates who sail for Carthage. Here the pirates sell Croessa and Cabiria at the slave market. The high priest Kartalo buys them to be sacrificed to the god Moloch. Croessa escapes and before being captured by the Phoenicians, she encounters Fulvio Axilla and his slave Maciste and begs them to save Cabiria. Croessa will endure punishment and death for attempting to save the little girl from being sacrificed. Parallel to the story of Cabiria, we follow the story of Hannibal, “the sword of Carthage”, who crosses the Alps in northern Italy to penetrate the Italian peninsula. The story develops mixing the efforts of Fulvio Axilla to join his fleet and fight against Carthage, Maciste’s attempt to save Cabiria, and the Punic war between Carthage and the Roman Empire.

The collaboration between the Roman hero Fulvio Axilla and the slave Maciste represents symbolically the Italian government’s efforts in devising a policy of collaboration between the classes. The narrative of the Roman wars and pagan upheavals articulated the colonial wars and internal social instability. The accommodation of hundreds of extras, that included soldiers, slaves, and foreign armies articulated and negotiated the many conflicts and concerns of the time. However, importantly, the deployment of crowds in the history film also had an economic and aesthetic function. Crowds could address a wide spectrum of the audience, and at the same time they were seen as a marker of realism. French critic Léon Daudet wrote in 1916 about Enrico Guazzoni’s film Giulio Cesare  (Julius Caesar, 1913): “The crowds that appear in Julius Caesar, and there are hundreds of extras, give an extraordinary impression of realism”.

In Cabiria the display of masses is a counterpoint to the ordered rank and file of Roman soldiers. The gathering of the masses during pagan rituals and human sacrifices to the god Moloch reinforced the rhetoric of order against disorder. The masses of pagans are contained and compressed within the monumental walls and columns of the temple. This fictional ordered gathering of the masses mirrors the series of reforms delivered by the three Giolitti governments (1903-1905; 1906-1909; 1911-1914), which aimed at the establishment of a representative democratic state. Giolitti believed that the state was an arbiter of conflicts between classes and supported organizations of workers that would act within a legal framework. With the broadening of the universal suffrage bill passed in 1912, Giolitti de facto broadened the base of the opposition, as more socialists were elected to the parliament. The ordered masses gathered inside and outside the temple of Moloch reflect this new political order. The physical containment of the masses is offered in contrast to the disorder of spontaneous protests that had characterized the first thirty years of the Italian workers movement. In contrast, in the adulation of the Roman ideal, we can see the seed of nationalism that, in the most extremist manifestation, will flow into Fascism. The glory of Imperial Rome will continue to be represented in films throughout the Fascist period.

Cabiria is a complex film full of discrepancies and fractures. For example, intertitles and images don’t match because intertitles follow Cabiria’s story, while the images follow Maciste’s story. Similarly, in the intertitles Maciste is always in a subordinate position to the Roman patrician Fulvio Axilla, but in the images Maciste and his actions are in the foreground. It is in fact Maciste, with his athletic physical form and strength part gladiator, part working class (the actor was a Genovese stevedore Bartolomeo Pagano) who rescues Cabiria from being sacrificed to the god Moloch.

Thus on a one level, the film suggests collaboration between Fulvio Axilla and Maciste.

Cabiria is the epitome of the history film genre. It contains all the elements that were present in previous films: characters, themes, situations and visual imagery can be found in Italian popular cultural production. Cabiria not only enjoyed success in Italy, but it was also a box-office hit in the United States. Technological innovation in special effects and aesthetic factors are also elements that contributed to the film’s international success. These elements are briefly discussed in the next section.

Anatomy of an international success

The film appealed to both elite and popular audiences and much of its success was due to its achievements in the technological field and in the use of on-screen space and perspective that were already present in Quo Vadis?. Pastrone’s company Itala Film was the first Italian production company that could be compared to the American model of the studio system. The only difference is that Pastrone covered both roles of director and producer.

Pastrone’s sophisticated and advanced organization was quite unique. Itala Film was organized along the lines of a vertical hierarchy in which Pastrone was the central supervisor. The company had a close relationship with the French film industry, from which Pastrone borrowed directors and cameramen. The script department optimized the company’s production. The so-called “Pastrone system” was the serialisation of comedies and historical epics. This system ranked Itala Film as the third Italian production company, after Cines and Ambrosio.

One of the most renowned aesthetic achievements of Cabiria was the use of the tracking shot, notably in the scene in which Maciste and Fulvio Axilla are escaping from the Phoenicians and barricade themselves in a cellar full of provisions. The camera pans from the barricade that Maciste and Fulvio Axilla erected to the stirs and down in the cellar. The camera then moves to explore the cellar from the two men’s point of view. The camera work was done by Spanish cameramen Segundo de Chomon, who had used tracking shots since 1909. In this sense, Cabiria is the aggregation of existing techniques employed by other national cinema industries.

In the film, Pastrone did not use trompe l’oeil sets, but relied on the combination of the natural scenery of the Alps, Tunisia and Sicily, and life size sets to increase the effect of depth, which was further enhanced by tracking shots. The altar to the god Moloch was an open set, a stage construction of enormous proportions that was directly inspired by Art Nouveau and could physically accommodate hundreds of extras. The open set magnified and emphasized the historical events that are represented in the film. The employment of a large number of extras enabled the refinement of techniques such as deep focus and tracking shots. And especially, the open set allowed the use of depth in the mise-en-scene and of a larger frame.

The critical reception of Cabiria was enthusiastic. In 1914, a reviewer assessed Cabiria as

(…) one of those things that will remain. It will remain because it reaches a point at which it ceases to be just the vulgar art of the cinema, and instead becomes history, true history, history seen through the eyes of a great poet (in Rhodes, 2000, p. 319).

Also in 1914, Stephen Bush wrote in the Moving Picture World that

The torrent of fiery flakes, the mouth of the volcano a veritable furnace of the Inferno, spewing forth unceasing sheets of fire, the rush of the fugitives lit up by a ruddy glow which half conceals and half reveals, the temple of Moloch with its worshippers and its fearful rites, the hero of Carthage passing over the Alps, the siege of Carthage, the burning of the ships which the aged Archimedes fought with the power of the sun, all these and a hundred other marvels of the spectacular make this feature pre-eminent among the spectacular success in all the history of spectacles. It is true that the classic theme always carries the spectacular element best, and this advantage the producer has pressed to the limit (in Kauffman & Henstell, 1972, p. 80-81).

In the first review, the writer goes so far as to blend the representation of history in film with the film itself becoming history, thus an event that “ceases to be just the vulgar art of cinema”. Cabiria can certainly claim both. In the second review, the American critic appreciated the spectacular elements provided by history, while other critics pointed at Cabiria as the pick of cinema art, treasuring photography and mise-en-scene, and emphasising the production values of the film to the disadvantage of D’Annunzio’s intertitles.

The collaboration between Gabriele D’Annunzio and Giovanni Pastrone was not a happy one. Pastrone was the author of the subject while D’Annunzio collaboration was limited to the translation of Pastrone’s story line into his poetic style that was then expressed in the intertitles. For this work, D’Annunzio received fifty thousand gold Liras; later D’Annunzio claimed the paternity of the subject, which created instantly publicity and interest.

In modern language, Cabiria was a blockbuster. Its lengthy time of production, the meticulous reconstruction of sets and the assembling of hundreds of extras, the attention given to the composition of space, the hiring of Gabriele D’Annunzio as a name that would grant respectability to the film, the money invested in marketing and the development of camera movements were elements that contributed to make Cabiria one of the most important films in the history of cinema. Cabiria also represented the pick and, at the same time, the end of Italian supremacy in historical blockbusters. At the onset of the First World War, the production of these epics passed into the hands of American producers, while the figure of the acrobatic rescuer, Maciste, became an international popular icon as it was replicated in series of films produced by different national cinema industries.


Kauffman S. & Henstell B. 1972, American Film Criticism: From the Beginnings to Citizen Kane, Liveright, New York.

Rhodes, J. D. 2000, “ ‘Our beautiful and glorious art lives’ “: The rhetoric of nationalism in early Italian film periodicals”, Film History, vol. 12, pp 308-321.

© Dr Tiziana Ferroro-Regis and the Australian Cinémathèque. Not to be reprinted without permission of the author and the Australian Cinémathèque.