Lifting a Corner of the Veil – Reframing Luchino Visconti: Film and Art

Written by dr. Ivo Blom
The various images throughout the text are filmstills from the book trailer which you can view below!


Dear students, colleagues, and other readers of this blog,

Permit me to give you some insight into my new book, the fruit of many years of hard labour: Reframing Luchino Visconti: Film and Art (Sidestone Press, 2018). It has appeared this Spring within the series CLUES of our research school CLUE+. The central question of my book was my obsession to find out where the striking visual splendour in Luchino Visconti’s films comes from, and who was responsible for this. In my book, I have answered this in two sections. First I researched Visconti’s appropriation of European art in composition, set and costume design. In the second part I delved into aesthetic conventions, researching Visconti’s cinematography in combination with his mise-en-scène, so staging in depth, framing, mobile framing and use of mirrors. My framework is grounded in new insights and revisions of art and film history but also studies of intermediality, in particular transmediality, in which aesthetic conventions from one medium are appropriated by another medium (in my case conventions, motifs and iconography from visual arts appropriated by cinema), plus intra-textuality, in my case how Visconti’s films build on the vocabulary of older films, and here I used a corpus much bigger than hitherto was common. From 2007 I have been active with our chair Ginette Verstraete to build up a network around intermediality, and thanks to a first expert meeting in Rome, an exploratory workshop of the European Science Foundation in Amsterdam, and various publications and panels at the NECS conferences, not in the least helped by Agnes Pethö and Antonio Somaini, we were able to expand this. My methodology was a combination of archival research (the Visconti archive in Rome in the first place), literature study, interviews with many collaborators, and close analysis of the films. The Royal Dutch Institute in Rome (KNIR) played an important part in my research, that’s why I launched the book there in March this year. The Dutch launch was done at the EYE Film Museum in April.

While Visconti used few direct pictorial citations, the ones he did use in his 1954 film Senso were very indicative for his style. In the film, the Venetian countess Livia (Alida Valli) has an affair with Franz (Farley Granger), the enemy, as he is an Austrian officer from the occupying army. Livia surrenders and embraces her lover in a pose quoted from Francesco Hayez’ famous painting Il Bacio. But instead of the noble message of the painting of a volunteer saying goodbye before going to war and defending his fatherland, Visconti contaminates this ideal as the elder Livia gives the money of the revolution to her young, money loving and immoral lover who will thus avoid war and a certain death. She buys his love, betraying fatherland, marriage, and revolution. In short, the citation as such is less important as what the director does with this. Very helpful to me was, therefore, art critic Michael Baxandall’s attack on the concept of influence, stating that it is not about how artwork A is influencing film B, but rather what film director B did with artwork A. This is much more active, adds more, is more complex. Baxandall, therefore, rather suggests the term of appropriation. For my first chapter I looked at this, as well as at the reputation of Hayez in Italy, as, oddly enough, this was at its lowest during Visconti’s making of the film.  Research into reputations was also paramount to one chapter on the use of art in sets, in particular, the use of Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s painting Le fils puni (1778) within the set of Visconti’s historical film Il Gattopardo (1963), a film adaptation of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel. During a lavish ball in Palermo, the protagonist don Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster) contemplates a copy of the painting in the library of his host (the moment is on the cover of my book).  He considers his own death but also that of his aristocratic world. Here too it is about appropriation, a twist to the original. And here too the painter in question was completely out of favour at the time of the film’s production. We notice an old man on his deathbed, surrounded by his gesticulating relatives. On the right, the mother accuses her son of the results of his behaviour. He has returned poor and crippled from the war (one notices crutches on the floor). But in the film, the artwork gained a new meaning, as it follows Lampedusa’s novel, which doesn’t speak about a punished son but about the Death of the Just Man, so the father. The writer ironically speaks about the lack of decorum in the same way as art historians wrote about Greuze in the mid-20th century. They claimed Greuze’s moral lessons were rather alibies for dubiously dressed ladies. But this twist from son to father is remarkable and Visconti confirms this with the selection of his camera framing. References to art return not only within the set design of Visconti’s films but also within the costumes. Already in my first meeting with Visconti’s costume designer Piero Tosi, he told me how often Visconti referred to art or artists, in order to indicate how he wanted a dress, a hat or a veil in front of a face. In Visconti’s last film L’innocente (1976), the protagonist Tullio (Giancarlo Giannini) fixes the veil around the face of his wife Giuliana (Laura Antonelli), unknowing she is going to her lover. Visconti indicated the veil had to be very tight, deforming the face as in Medardo Rosso’s sculpture Donna velata: impressione di sera al boulevard (1893). Giuliana thus seems to formally escape to Tullio’s vision, confirming the content of the scene. This striking moment of literal and figurative veiling is often recurring in Visconti’s work, as well as its counterpoint, the unveiling, often corresponding to unveiling truths, so I dedicated a full chapter to this.

For the second part of my book I needed a new framework, for which I found an important impetus in Victor Stoichita’s book The Self-Aware Image, focusing on what he calls the birth of meta-painting, or the autonomization of the still-life, the landscape, and the interior painting, reaching its apex in the Dutch 17th century genre painting by e.g. Hoogstraten, Vermeer, and Maes. Moreover, for my research in staging and framing I discovered I shouldn’t look only at art, but also to cinema preceding Visconti’s. Others had pointed at Visconti’s 1936 internship with Jean Renoir for his film Une partie de campagne (1936), but I discovered that Visconti’s visual vocabulary and storytelling owes more to another Renoir film, La bête humaine (1938), where the last image of the female protagonist is identical to the first image of the female protagonist in Visconti’s debut Ossessione (1943). We notice the same framing with the man and the doorpost blocking our view onto the woman. But also the Italian cinema under fascism, so despised by Visconti in public statements, proved to have been important for his filmic vocabulary, in the first place Tosca, started by Renoir in 1939 and finished by his assistant Carl Koch in 1940-1941, for which Visconti was assistant director. It is in this film that Visconti personally witnessed the use of massive crane shots, for which he himself would become so famous, right from Ossessione onwards. Also, just like it happens with Ossessione’s protagonist, at the start of Tosca it takes a very long time until we see the face of the main antagonist, Baron Scarpia (Michel Simon); a postponement that strongly increases the curiosity.

Remarkable is how Visconti constantly plays with deep staging. Often we notice objects such as flowers but also people in the foreground, who seem just decorative or aesthetic at first, intended to increase depth, as repoussoir in art terms, but also function as comments on the background or middle plane.  When in Il Gattopardo Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) makes her entree at the noble family of don Fabrizio, she passes a large bouquet of yellow flowers of the field, arranged in a quite loose way. Tosi told me this was done on purpose and indicative of Visconti’s style. Angelica herself namely is the fresh, wild flower who enter this rather bloodless, stiff family, thus creating a major contrast and source for conflict. This use of objects in the foreground as comment to what happens in the back, was already analysed by Stoichita for visual art, using the term of parergon: the seemingly unimportant, ornamental, situated hors-texte, so e.g. outside of the Biblical scene in the back of Pieter Aertsen’s Vanitas (1552), but instead commenting on that situation. Thus I also analysed Visconti’s films. In addition to Stochita, another important source was an article by Letizia Bellocchio which proved that Visconti, by placing actors in the foreground or background, or a combination, gives you a feeling you can identify with the characters, yet stay at a distance from them. Such distancing Visconti needed, as he thought it important for his viewers to be able to give a moral judgment, like he did himself. In this context, French philosopher Gilles Deleuze stated that people as repoussoir on the foreground often function as observers. Deleuze, therefore, states that Visconti’s characters rather register than react.

Then again, Visconti also leads you through spaces, as if exploratory travels, sometimes by actors who open one door after another as in Senso, but also by letting the moving camera explore the spaces as in the introduction of Il Gattopardo, in which by use of crane shots the camera approaches the villa of the family. In this respect, Deleuze states that when Visconti moves the camera forward, we simultaneously go back in time. Camera movement may also be lateral, panoramic, similar to 19th-century panoramic painting, such as that of Silvestro Lega or Giovanni Fattori, but also similar to Jean Renoir’s multiple lateral tracking shots as in his Les bas-fonds (1936). Yet, we also notice moments in which we are not free to wander around, and are held back by framing. Sets, architecture, deprive us of a full view of the characters. In contrast to painting (Degas excluded perhaps), in Visconti’s films, we often find moments in which characters are filtered or even temporarily blocked, as they pass behind flowers or other objects, or are filmed through semi-transparent curtains. This indirectness is very typical of Visconti’s style.

Visconti did appropriate certain framing conventions from visual arts when we look at shots through open windows and doors, echoing the film frame. In La terra trema (1948) Visconti partly covers characters by the open window, similar to the equal dreamy pose in Nicolaas Maes’ painting The Daydreamer (1650-1660). Stoichita writes that the viewing out of the window, seen from inside out, functions as the model for landscape painting, while the open door could also be a connection between two interior spaces, and therefore for him is the model for interior painting. These Dutch vistas such as those by Samuel Hoogstraten have their parallels in cinema, both in Visconti’s films as in those of predecessors. Renoir loved vistas, but also Italian filmmakers of the 1930s and 1940s experimented with it a lot, as can be seen in such films as La canzone dell’amore (1930) and Fari nella nebbia (1942). Remarkable is how often the vertical elements within the image react to the horizontal frame of the film frame. All these frames may give you feelings of imprisonment, and indeed it is striking how Visconti’s later films were shot mostly or entirely in interiors. Interiors that may lead to suffocation and explosions of emotions.

Finally, remarkable is Visconti’s use of mirrors in his films, not just to increase depth. Mirrors confront characters with themselves, either in positive (Senso) or negative ways (L’innocente). A good example is the metamorphosis of Prof. Aschenbach in Death in Venice (1971), in which he does not immediately recognize the awkwardness of his new look, almost a parody of Jacques-Émile Blanche’s famous portrait (1892) of Marcel Proust. Perhaps not so strange as Visconti was preparing a big adaptation of Proust’s Recherche then. But this scene with the demise of the once so respected professor reminds of the demise in the make-up scene of another professor, the one in Josef von Sternberg’s Der blaue Engel (1930), who also make a fool of himself out of love, performing as a clown. Even the composition of certain shots seems to coincide with those in Death in Venice. In addition to confrontations with oneself,  Visconti uses mirrors also to confront with the other, offscreen but onscreen in the reflection, as in the discussion between the two brothers in La terra trema. The younger brother Cola wants to leave for the mainland, but his older brother ‘Ntoni, visible in the reflection, wants to hold him back. Cola looks into the mirror as if the future is hidden there – mirrors foretelling futures are of course a common motif. The camera turns around them creating new ensembles, instead of using editing. For just a moment the two can be seen together in every sense, in a two-shot of them reflected in the mirror, as if an illusion of togetherness. Then it’s gone, ‘Ntoni has lost and leaves the room in tears. In this way Visconti uses rather a synthetic than an analytic vision, indicating him as a true heir to the vocabulary of European silent cinema, with its deep staging and use of mirrors as an alternative to editing.
blog ivo8
This was just a tip of the veil. If you want to know more: read the book. On the publisher’s site  the read-only is for free, a download is just 10 euros, and the paperback itself is 40 euros. Here you can also convince yourself by comparing the many illustrations, directly bought from museums and taken from DVD and BlueRay, in order to stay as close as possible to the originals. If you would like to read more about my projects please visit my site, here!


Ivo Blom



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