Ancient and modern: how silent cinema animated the classical world

This is a guest blog for Silent London by Maria Wyke, professor of Latin at University College London.

Recently I came across a silent short in the archives of the US Library of Congress that displays the eruption of Vesuvius in 1906. It was the first time the destructive volcano had been captured in moving images. But what caught my attention even more than that was how the (as yet unidentified) Italian filmmaker had juxtaposed scenes of destroyed buildings and dead bodies in the local towns with shots of tourists serenely visiting the ancient city of Pompeii – as if to accuse the elegant visitors of preferring to look at the pretty ruins of the past instead of helping overcome present suffering. I’ve managed to got hold of a digital copy of the film and now you too can see it alongside three other rarely seen silents about the classical world (including a recently restored feature about the emperor Caligula, about which more below).

The screening takes place at the Bloomsbury Theatre, on Saturday 6 July, 7.30 to 10pm. Tickets are £12 and available from the Bloomsbury Box office. Live accompaniment will be provided by Stephen Horne, whose impressive performances have won several Silent London awards.

2 Excursion_in_ancient_Greece
An Excursion in Ancient Greece (1913)

Silent cinema delivers a democratic take on the classical world. That’s one theme that emerges from across the films I’ll be screening. From Filmarchiv Austria comes a Pathé travelogue, An Excursion in Ancient Greece (1913), that follows its well-dressed sightseers along the Corinthian canal to view various celebrated monuments on and around the Acropolis. Distributed worldwide, the short rescues ancient Greece from its associations with high culture and moneyed tourism and offers its spectators the opportunity to visit sites affordably from the comfort of their local picture house.

From our own British National Film Archive – and with many thanks to its silent film curator Bryony Dixon – comes the feature Slave of Phydias (Gaumont, 1916-17). Thanks to its pioneering director Léonce Perret, it is beautifully shot on location among the cedars and cypresses of an ornate neo-classical villa situated high above the coastline of southern France. The film’s careful composition and deep-space tableaux recall the glamorous 19th-century antiquity paintings of Alma-Tadema and bring them vividly to life.

 Slave of Phydias (Gaumont, 1916-17)
Slave of Phydias (Gaumont, 1916-17)

Characters appear dappled in sunlight, reflected in pools of shimmering water, or silhouetted against the sparkling sea, to great emotive effect. Because this is not a grand historical narrative about the sculptor Phydias and the colossal works he created to celebrate the power of the Athenian state. What matters here is the creativity of the sculptor’s model – the poor slave girl who gives the film its title. While Phydias attempts to chisel a statue of the goddess of love that remains off-screen and unfinished throughout the film, his slave-girl creates in him a real, passionate love stirred by the beauty of her flesh and, most importantly, of her lyre-playing. By the end of the film the lovers face oblivion, forced to say goodbye to a tranquil ‘land of beauty and of love’ that is both ancient Greece and contemporary France. Suffering, loss and exile are key concerns suited to the film’s period of production during the First World War.

Slave of Phydias (Gaumont, 1916-17)
Slave of Phydias (Gaumont, 1916-17)

Finally we have the UK premiere of The Tragic End of the Emperor Caligula (Film d’arte Italiana, 1917), just recently restored by Cineteca di Bologna. The FAI production company had been established with the express purpose of adapting to screen the greatest works of theatre or literature, and its director Ugo Falena, having previously been a playwright and a theatre manager, attracted many well-known stage actors over to the new medium. The original reviewers praised the film for unfolding a tragedy while, at the same time, displaying all the richness of an art work: “marvellous landscapes, powerful effects of light and shadow, all the beauty of the Roman countryside and its ancient monuments, all the spirituality of the catacombs and, what’s more, a faithful reconstruction of the imperial palace”.

The tragedy is that, in the opulent palace, Caligula’s son dies and he descends into madness – thinking the ghosts of those he has murdered surround him and turning his anger onto the innocent Christians. At the climactic banquet, he forces an innocent girl to dance for him or see her companions slaughtered. The humble girl breaks out of the ancient moment into the modern when her shoes are removed and the celebrated diva who plays her, Stacia Napierkowska, begins to swirl barefoot as if possessed by terror. The Christians are rescued, Caligula assassinated, and his body thrown into the Tiber.

The Tragic End of the Emperor Caligula (Film d’arte Italiana, 1917)


The Tragic End of the Emperor Caligula (Film d’arte Italiana, 1917)
The Tragic End of the Emperor Caligula (Film d’arte Italiana, 1917)

The dance scene in the last part of the film is the longest in any of Napierkowska’s surviving films, and was a major reason for the film’s restoration. I owe the following history of the restoration to Mariann Lewinsky, programmer for Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, and keen enthusiast for my project researching ancient Rome in silent cinema. A negative without intertitles had been found in the Cinémathèque française among other productions from Film d’Arte Italiana. (FAI had been owned by Pathé frères, which explains why its negatives ended up in French rather than Italian archives.) When the Bologna archivists asked their Dutch counterparts for any paper documents they might have that would enable them to reconstruct the missing intertitles, the Eye Filmmuseum responded that it didn’t have much non-filmic material but did have a first-generation nitrate positive print. It had never been restored because it lacked the crucial dance scene. With its rich tinting and toning and Dutch intertitles, the print provided all the information that the negative lacked. The missing scene (present in the French negative) shows the Christian girl not only performing a lascivious dance for mad Caligula and also being carried off by two huge slaves on a silver platter, in order to be served up to the emperor in his bedchamber. Napierkowska’s dance sequence had been cut in the 1920s, when the film was being exploited in the Netherlands for religious education.

All these films that you can see on 6 July demonstrate how silent cinema had an important role in democratising ancient Greece and Rome and spreading that knowledge across the world to millions of spectators. The features, in particular, invite their audiences to enter antiquity and experience it across the boundaries of nation, class and gender. Many such ‘antiquity’ films dating right back to 1896 survive in the archives, often in fragile and damaged condition. My research on those films seeks to show how silent cinema provided the classical world with a pathway to reach the modern world (making that distant past come alive through gesture and look, decorative sets and costumes, colour, music and movement), and how the classical world provided silent cinema with a platform on which it could build much of its claim to cultural value (the tenth Muse encompassing all the others).

Pompeii and Vesuvius (1906)

Silent cinema claimed to offer an experience of the classical past that had as much value as a tourist trip to Greece or Italy, or a visit to a museum, an art gallery, or the theatre – and, perhaps, one more lively and more affordable. Come to the newly refurbished, 540-seater Bloomsbury Theatre on the evening of Saturday 6 July and you might be able to see the truth of that for yourself.

By Maria Wyke

  • The Entering the Classical World Through Silent Cinema screening takes place at the Bloomsbury Theatre, on Saturday 6 July, 7.30 to 10pm. Tickets are £12 and available from the Bloomsbury Box office.
  • Read more about Maria Wyke’s research project Ancient Rome on Film
  • The Ancient World in Silent Cinema, a collection of essays edited by Pantelis Michelakis and Maria Wyke, was published in 2013. Find it in a library near you.



2 thoughts on “Ancient and modern: how silent cinema animated the classical world”

  1. Lovely post! Wonderful that the restoration of La tragica fine di Caligula imperator is having another screening. I’d love to see it – Napierkowska was a gorgeous dancer.

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