Federico Fellini’s commentary on his approach to Petronius’ Satyricon betrays a number of contradictions: scholars have observed his studied approach to the novel and its ancient cultural milieu (Solomon 2001; Sullivan 2001), as well as his claims to “disconcerting analogies” (Fellini 1970) between ancient Rome and twentieth-century Western society; such critics also repeat the director’s claims of a distanced approach to antiquity as a fundamentally unrecognizable past in which he has little or no emotional investment (cf. Paul 2009). Perhaps because of these contradictions, the metaphor of visual archaeology, Fellini’s description of his approach as similar to the way “an archaeologist reconstruct[s]… something alluding to the form of an amphora through a few potsherds” (1970, 45), has influenced multiple readings of the film (Dick 1981; Wyke 1997). The director offers us a few recognizable fragments of ancient urban topography, but not enough to allow the reconstruction of a Rome recognizable from other portraits of the city in mid-20th century films such as Quo Vadis (1951) and Spartacus (1960).
It is those fragments of Fellini’s Rome that are the subject of this paper, recognizable in terms of Petronian themes if not in their precise material and visual articulation within those cityscapes shot at Cinecittà. I argue that Encolpio’s and Gitone’s stroll through the Suburra, while confirming the film’s status as science fiction of the past (Zanelli 1970), also offers an instructive reception of Petronius’ narrative of the spatial disorientation experienced by Encolpius, Giton, and Ascyltos and described in the fragments assigned to the earlier part of the extant novel (esp. 6-9, 11-12). Scholarship on the Satyricon has emphasized the fundamentally deceptive and theatrical nature of characters in each of the novel’s episodes, contextualized in a world where facades do not align with the reality behind them (Zeitlin 1971; Wooten 1984; Rimell 2002). In the first part of this paper I illustrate not only how the initial wanderings and tentative reunions of Encolpius, Ascyltos, and Giton replay the hermeneutic uncertainty central to the novel, but also how spatial signifiers in these segments contribute to the disorientation of reader as well as the novel’s protagonists (cf. Slater 1990).
From there I turn to Fellini’s appropriation of the novel’s tension between façade and reality, and the spatial dislocations that help generate it (Dick 1981). Encolpio initially finds Gitone elevated and dressed as Eros onstage in Vernacchio’s theater, a nod to the theatricality that defines the relationship between the two characters in the novel; after the lovers reunite in the film an abrupt cut introduces their walk through the Suburra, where ritual and bathing spaces yield to a series of framed cellae viewed with detachment by the film’s protagonists. Where earlier cinema had used the widescreen effect of Cinemascope to create a totalizing view of Rome and its empire, Fellini expands the frame in ways that counter a linear presentation of the stroll with jarring discontinuity of events between (and within) individual cellae, where causal relationships fail to govern the sequence of images presented. On the one hand, Fellini has departed from his source material by substituting the master-signifier Rome for the less well- known municipal space on the Bay of Naples in which the novel’s early narrative is set; on the other hand, by transferring the action to a well-known but disreputable space (e.g., Prop. 4.7; Juv.11.51), the director defamiliarizes the City in a way that, I argue, replicates the confusion of the novel’s characters. If scholars have identified a polarity in filmic representations of the past, according to which Barthes’ “balcony of history” is countered by cinema’s immersive powers (Morcillo, Hanesworth, and Marchena 2015; Sobchack 1990), Fellini’s artistry places us squarely on a balcony. But the same artistry reveals an intimacy with Petronius’ text that alerts viewers to the paradoxes, disorientation, and problems of interpretation defining Neronian Rome.
Screening Topographies of Classical Reception