Dante, early cinema and the creation of national identity in Italy

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Production stills from Inferno 1911 / Director: Giuseppe De Liguoro, Adolfo Padovan, Francesco Bertolini / Images courtesy: Cineteca di Bologna

It’s Italy’s National Day on Monday June 2, and you can immerse yourself in Italian culture the day prior at the Gallery’s Australian Cinémathèque with two sumptuous Italian silent epics: La Cineteca di Bologna’s 2006 restoration of Inferno 1911 (screening 11.00am Sunday 1 June, free), and followed by Carmine Gallone and Amleto Palermi’s Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (The Last Days of Pompeii) 1926 (screening 1.30pm Sunday 1 June, free) both with live musical accompaniment by international concert pianist Mauro Colombis, these recently restored spectacle films should not be missed.

Inferno 1911 — the first feature length film made in Italy — is an epic cinematic adaptation of Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy) (c.1308–21) directed by Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan and Giuseppe De Liguoro. An ambitious three-year production for Milano Films, it is celebrated as one of the most influential works of the ‘golden age’ of Italian silent film and one of the finest cinematic adaptations of Dante’s work. The première screening at Naples’ Teatro Mercadante on March 10, 1911 was attended by leading figures from the world of art, literature, journalism and politics, and praised for reflecting the spirit of Italy and its modernisation. The film’s international success would transform Milano Films into a major studio and paved the way for productions with longer running times and higher production values, including Carmine Gallone and Amleto Palermi’s epic Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (The Last Days of Pompeii) 1926.


Following the trajectory of Dante’s work, Inferno presents a harrowing vision of hell with violently tormented souls, mystical creatures and forsaken landscapes. The film’s depiction of hell closely matched French artist Gustave Doré’s 1861 engravings illustrating Dante’s work, made even grander through the beautiful use of colour-tinting and through special effects by cinematographer Emilio Roncarolo. Some of the film’s notable scenes include Dante passing through the River of Filth where numerous sinners attempt frantically to rid themselves of the grime caused by their sinful behaviour; and Dante’s interaction with Count Ugolino. This scene is considered to be one of the first uses of the narrative device of the flashback in cinema. While Ugolino is seen gnawing on the brain of Archbishop Ruggieri, the film cuts back to recount a tale of the Archbishop’s role in his family’s destitution and the death of his children from hunger.

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Inferno was released at a time when Italy had no national newspaper and when cinema played a significant role in constructing a sense of national identity. Dante had been progressively glorified in the new national imagination after the Risorgimento of 1861 – the unification of its different city states – as the father of the Italian language, ensuring that Italians could experience a sense of shared history and community. A great supporter of the 1911 Inferno was poet Goisuè Carducci, an admirer of Dante and founding member of La Società Dante Alighieri, a cultural society set up to ‘protect and foster knowledge of and affection for the mother country’s language, culture and cultural consciousness in the lands bordering or separated from it.’1 In a piece dedicated to Dante, Carducci imagines the soul of his beloved poet appearing at the gates of Purgatory and demanding entrance for a ‘short stay’. A ‘voice from above’ replies entrusting him with the care of Italy for the next five centuries, as the roaming guardian of the nation’s borders.

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Over the last century, Inferno has remained largely unseen outside of rare archival screenings, with available film prints either damaged or incomplete. The restoration by La Cineteca di Bologna has made it possible to see this important work again and to appreciate its aesthetic and political impact at the time it was released. Despite its age, this extraordinary retelling of Dante’s first Canto has lost none of its visual power, from its depictions of pleading decapitated souls to naked bodies writhing amidst a frozen wasteland. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Dante figured largely as a political icon mobilised by various movements as the guardian and creator of Italy. Assigned the role of first patriot of Italy, Dante was used to band the nation of Italy together as seen in the release of Inferno and its promotion throughout Italy in the years leading to World War One. Today, the film is celebrated in the history of cinema but also provides an insight into Italian national identity.

1.  Havely, Nick. “Epilogue: Dante and Early Italian Cinema: The 1911 Milano-Films Inferno and Italian Nationalism” in Dante in the Long Nineteenth Century: Nationality, Identity and Appropriation. Edited by Aida Audeh and Nick Havely, 354–69. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.