Over a century ago, well before mass tourism and the depopulation of Venice, the islands of the lagoon were frequented by a few and privileged foreign travelers, mostly Russians, Europeans and North Americans. At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Venice continued to exert a great fascination abroad and on a certain elite tourism, but it had also fallen into a state of decay which in 1902 led to the collapse of the bell tower of San Marco, which crumbled on himself on a July day after decades of neglect.
The event was significant and woke the city from its long slumber, at least until the Second World War. Already at the end of the nineteenth century the local aristocracy had been thinking about how to renew its image and revive a city that seemed to have run out of it. It is no coincidence that in 1895 a group of intellectuals supported by the mayors of that decade, Riccardo Selvatico and Filippo Grimani, had inaugurated at the Giardini di Castello “a biennial series of artistic exhibitions, partly free, partly on invitation” which today we commonly know as the Biennale, one of the most important and long-lasting contemporary art exhibitions in the world, the largest in Italy.
Over the years the Biennale, a name that actually indicates the entire cultural foundation, became more and more solid and began to bring together various activities under it. In 1932 cinema was added to the classical figurative arts and that same year Venice hosted the Lido – the strip of land that separates the lagoon from the Adriatic – the first edition of what today, a few days after its 79th edition, is the first and oldest film festival in the world. Its establishment is credited in particular to one person, Count Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata, to whom the cups awarded by the jury to the best actors in competition are dedicated today.
Volpi had been appointed president of the Biennale in 1930. He was one of the most influential political and entrepreneurial personalities of the time, not only for Venice. In the course of his life he was many things and still today he is remembered between light and dark. He was governor of Tripolitania, senator of the Kingdom of Italy, second finance minister of the fascist regime, president of Confindustria and of the Generali insurance group.
Previously, in the early twentieth century, he had been the main promoter of the construction of the Petrochemical of Porto Marghera, the huge industrial center that supported the Italian economic boom in the middle of the century, but which subsequently developed large environmental and above all social issues within it. , with hundreds of deaths among the workers carelessly exposed to substances little known at the time. Volpi was also the founder of SADE, one of the largest Italian energy companies of the time, which made a decisive contribution to the electrification of the country. As president of the company, Volpi followed and approved in his last years the construction of the Vajont dam despite the negative opinions of technicians and experts, as ascertained after the disaster that in 1963 caused almost two thousand deaths and the total destruction of dozens of centers inhabited areas of the Belluno area.
In the Thirties, at the height of his influence, Volpi once again made his intuitions and personal interests coincide in the establishment of the International Film Festival. At the time he was one of the major shareholders of the Compagnia Italiana Grandi Alberghi (CIGA), which at the beginning of the twentieth century had begun the conversion of Lido, a modest inhabited center that until then had mostly served as a natural barrier to protect Venice. . The group’s properties included the Hotel Excelsior, designed in the early twentieth century to be one of the most modern and elegant hotels in the world. And on the sea-view terraces of the Excelsior, the first edition of the Film Festival was held from 6 to 21 August 1932.
The exhibition was established to bring together in the same place and in a single event a worldly event and a tourist attraction with promotional, artistic and industrial purposes, as the Gazzetta di Venezia, local newspaper owned by Volpi. “This event is the first of its kind in the world. It is not an exhibition of materials, but a presentation of films, in full edition, without reductions due to censorship, dubbing of voices or remakes. The main purpose of this international festival is to provide the public with an exact idea of the artistic levels achieved by the productions of the publishing houses ».
Those intentions still animate the Venice Film Festival today, even if over the years some were disregarded. The first edition fell on the tenth anniversary of the march on Rome and the rise to power of Benito Mussolini. The Fascist regime, at first deliberately remained extraneous to the event, given the successes obtained, it got closer and closer, until it took control in 1935. Initially it maintained its opening to international markets, from American to Soviet productions , the feature that had made the festival’s fortune. Over time, however, it gradually turned towards a nationalist demonstration, hosting, among other things, Italian-German reviews in the presence of Joseph Goebbels, propaganda minister of Nazi Germany.
Under the regime the Festival became annual and included among the prizes the Mussolini Cup for best film, which in 1938 was awarded to Leni Riefenstahl, the director of the Nazi regime. This continued until 1942, the year of the last edition before the suspension for the war. The exhibition resumed in 1946 and immediately tried to get away from its past. He pressed The man from the South by Jean Renoir, the films on the Italian resistance The sun still rises And Paisaby Aldo Vergano and Roberto Rossellini, and Executioners also die by Fritz Lang, the only American-produced film that the German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht worked on.
In the same year in Cannes, France, the first edition of a new film festival was held, already conceived in the Thirties precisely as a response to the fascist interference at the Venice Film Festival, but postponed until 1946 due to war events. Although the Italian organizers had immediately embarked on a path of breaking with the Fascist past of the festival, those ties were brought to light by the success of the Cannes Film Festival, and with the great changes of the following years they risked definitively ending the ten-year history of the Festival.
After the war, the Venetian festival managed to maintain its centrality in the cinema sector and indeed, it probably passed its heyday, attracting the greatest personalities of the time to the Lido. But in the 1960s, with the approach of student and worker protests, the criticisms of his Fascist-era statute, which remained unchanged, became more and more insistent until the 1968 edition. That year the Italian film association, the ANAC, withdrew its films as a sign of protest, with numerous directors and actors in the front row, and others against it, including Bernardo Bertolucci, Roberto Rossellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini.
The opening was marked by demonstrations and clashes with the police outside the Palazzo del Cinema which caused it to be postponed for two days. The exhibition was then self-managed by the Italian cinemas under the direction of the cinema theorist Luigi Chiarini, but this did not serve to placate the demonstrations, which continued until the final day.
As a result of that edition, the Exhibition became non-competitive, that is, it stopped awarding prizes until 1980. In 1973, 1977 and 1978 it was not even organized. After the reform of the statute, the relaunch was attempted starting from 1979 with the direction entrusted to the director Carlo Lizzani with the collaboration of the critic Enzo Ungari, who put it back on its feet by reorganizing it following the new trends of international cinema, starting with the proposals of the renewed German cinema and the success of new Italian directors. The new course led to a greater internationalization of the festival, which in the 1990s began to rely much more frequently on foreign jury presidents, such as Gore Vidal, David Lynch, Roman Polanski, Miloš Forman and Jane Campion.
In the meantime, the Biennale was turned into a foundation under private law and in 1998 the presidency of Paolo Baratta, a manager with long experience, several times minister in technical governments, who concluded his office in 2020 with the appointment of Roberto Cicutto, the current president. Since 2011 the director of the exhibition has been Alberto Barbera, former director of the National Cinema Museum of Turin.
In recent decades, the Festival has had to manage above all a long and complicated process of renovating its structures and spaces on the Lido, marked in particular by the failure to build a new Palazzo del Cinema. Between bureaucratic steps and lack of agreements, the project finally stopped in 2011 after the discovery of a real asbestos dump in the subsoil of the coast, which is why the exhibition took place around a construction site until 2016.
From the artistic and promotional side, however, the festival has regained its importance in the film industry, distinguishing itself among other things for having anticipated the new wave of successes of Asian cinema since the early 2000s. In the year of the 79th edition, the history of the exhibition was completely reconstructed for the first time by the film historian Gian Piero Brunetta in a volume published in collaboration with the Biennale and the Venetian publishing house Marsilio.
– Read also: The Venice Film Festival in black and white
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