A cultural history reveals an effervescent decade of riches in postwar Rome.
In this ebullient tour of Rome in the 1950s, film critic and celebrity biographer Levy (De Niro: A Life, 2014, etc.) portrays the city as a burgeoning center of fashion, photography, and, especially, movies. The star of the book—and the most glittering star to emerge from the period—is Sophia Loren, “the greatest living vessel of any number of traits associated with Italy: sensuality, practicality, endurance, glamour, an ironic sense of humor, a zest for the simple pleasures of life.” At first sight, gushes the author, Loren stood out as “one of those superhuman creatures known as movie stars.” Loren, though, is not alone in meriting Levy’s attention. The author traces Federico Fellini’s career from the time he was a journalist to his triumphs as a director, focusing on the conception, casting, and filming of the controversial La Dolce Vita (1960), starring Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg, and 8 ½ (1963), the film that “mixed dream and nightmare and fantasy and real life,” and which some critics deemed the director’s masterpiece. Others colorfully portrayed in Levy’s large cast include actresses Anna Magnani, Gina Lollobrigida (beautiful, but hardly comparable to Loren), Ingrid Bergman, Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor, and Audrey Hepburn; directors Michelangelo Antonioni, Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, and Pier Paolo Pasolini; fashion designers Emilio Pucci, Simonetta, and Valentino; and assorted playboys such as Porfirio Rubirosa, who frequented the posh clubs and restaurants on the Via Veneto. That street, and the Trevi Fountain, in which Ekberg famously cooled her feet, mark two of the only sites that Levy describes; physical Rome recedes as he focuses on personalities, careers, and piles of celebrity gossip. To that end, he follows the careers of Rome’s famous photographers, dubbed paparazzi after Fellini portrayed them in La Dolce Vita as “a writhing, snapping, shouting mass.”
Levy’s spirited history is nothing less than a love letter to Rome’s luxurious, sensational past.