The first screening in Italy took place on March 12, 1896 in Rome, at De Liure’s photographic studio, located in Via del Mortaro near the Trevi Fountain. The studio was also the venue for the first public screenings, from March 13 to May 10. The same year witnessed the spread of the new invention to other major Italian cities, in the following order: Milan, at the Teatro Milanese on March 29; Naples, at the Salone Margherita (a cabaret theatre which continued working until the early 1980’s) on April 4; Venice on August 22, Bologna on August 29; Turin on November 7. Florence followed in 1897, on January 24.
The first screens permanently installed for performances were in café-chantants, with the first starting in Turin in 1897. The first purpose-built cinema theatre came some years later: Rome’s Cinema Moderno, opened in 1904 and is still going strong. The first cinema was run by a pioneer of Italian cinema who had also patented a motion picture camera in December 1895. Another Italian pioneer involved in running early permanent cinemas was Oreste Pasquarelli, who also built and patented a camera in November 1897. Yet another early exhibitor was Italo Pacchioni, who projected scenes shot with equipment made by himself. The Italian cinema industry got under way in the period 1905-1910, which saw the thriving beginnings of Ambrosio (1906) in Turin, Itala film and Alberini & Santoni in Rome, later known as the Primo Stabilimento Italiano di Manifattura Cinematografica (1905) before taking the name Cines.
Alberini & Santoni set up a studio from the outset, while Ambrosio, founded by a Turin optician, initially concentrated on filming current events before building a studio in 1913. Comerio and Luggo also built studios, respectively in Milan in 1913 (Milano film) and Naples in 1914 (Napoli film). 1913 witnessed the construction on Rome’s Caelian Hill of a glass-walled studio (all early studios were glass-panelled), whose metal structure is still extant, although encased in the walls of a television production centre.
While the Movie Palaces were being built in America, richly ornate and gaudy temples of kitsch, the opposite process was taking place in Italy: the great aristocratic palaces with their fabulous historic architecture first gave over rooms to family theatres and then, with the advent of film, to cinemas. In Piazza Capranica in Rome, a number of the rooms of Cardinal Capranica’s apartments, which amongst other things had been a theatre since the fifteenth century, were finally turned into a cinema in 1922 by architect Carlo Wadis. Much rebuilt in the meantime, the Cinema Capranica continues as a city-centre cinema to this day.
Other noble families preferred to sell their now superfluous stable-blocks as cinemas: this was how the Barberini came into existence below the palace and in the square of the same name. The cinema now called Etoile is a descendant of the glorious Corso Cinema in the square in Lucina; it was designed by Marcello Piacentini and was originally sited in a garden “of orange-trees and oleanders” which gave it its early name of Lux et Umbra. These were boom years for cinemas: Rome’s Prati district in 1910 saw the construction of the Trionfale cinema (now converted to the Giulio Cesare multiplex), designed by architects Giacomelli and Mascanzoni. The first Teatro Umberto opened in Via Cola di Rienzo in 1908 and later became the cinema-theatre Principe, since demolished.
The last years before sound saw further construction of grandiose cinemas: the Supercinema, built in 1924, was the biggest in Rome with 2 000 seats, while Milan’s largest cinema, the Colosseo, was designed by Alessandro Rimini and opened in 1927. In 1929, with sound by now firmly established and spreading fast, came the inauguration of the Odeon complex in Milan, designed by Laveni and Avati and featuring a theatre on one floor with the cinema occupying the three floors above. It has recently been comprehensively restructured to become one of Italy’s multiplexes.
After 1925 no town in Italy was too small or too remote to have a cinema, contrived from existing buildings or even a deconsecrated church, sometimes with a pretension to elegance, sometimes occupying no more than a rudimentary hut.
The main trade associations were all created in 1945: the national entertainment association (Agis); the national exhibitors’ association (Anec), part of Agis; the national association of cinema enterprises (Anica), which brings together producers, distributors and home video operators. Italy’s public institution for the cinema is the Ente Cinema SpA, founded in 1958 and responsible for the world-famous Cinecittà studios and laboratories, set up in 1937.
A number of satellite businesses grew up alongside the cinema industry. First to appear were projector factories: Pio Pion and Fedi were early pioneers that sadly have since disappeared. In 1920 the Officine Bossi workshops spawned Cinemeccanica, today a world leader in the field of projectors and accessories for automatic projection. Prevost, another projector manufacturer, came up with a kind of horizontal cutting table which proved to be far more practical than the American “Movieolas” and was preferred by the majority of editors. Other companies produced tripods, panorama heads and trolleys, achieving worldwide recognition: Cartoni, owned by the engineer Guido Cartoni, and Sante Zelli’s Elemac. Both companies won the technician’s “Oscar”, the Technical Award. Gervasi Elettronica produced dubbing and rerecording equipment destined primarily for the export market. Another major Italian exporter was Mario De Sisti, whose factory provided equipment and accessories for lighting cinema and also television studios all over the world.