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September 23

The Last Days of Pompeii


Free Screening - Live Piano Accompaniment by Robert Humphreville
Sunday September 23 at 4pm

The Last Days of Pompeii

Directed by Carmine Gallone and Amleto Palermi. With Victor Varconi, Rina De Liguoro, María Corda
Italy 1926, 35 mm, tinted b/w, silent, 144 min


The spectacular end of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, buried under the ashes of erupting Mount Vesuvius, was a favorite subject of early historical films. These movies drove cinematic innovation and were among the first major box-office hits in the annals of film history.

The 1926 movie Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (“The Last Days of Pompeii”), directed by Carmine Gallone and Amleto Palermi, is based on the storyline of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), arguably the most popular historical novel written in the nineteenth century. Bulwer-Lytton’s tale of the young dandy Glaucus in love with beautiful Ione was the canonical narrative of Pompeii’s destruction. Glaucus’ jealous rival, the Egyptian priest Arbaces, slays Ione’s brother Apaecides, whom he has failed to convert to his mystery religion. Exploiting the love of the blind slave girl Nydia for Glaucus, her master, Arbaces proceeds to blame Glaucus for the murder. Then Mount Vesuvius strikes: the eruption kills the villain, and blind Nydia guides Ione and Glaucus through the rain of ashes to safety outside of the collapsing city.

With a runtime of over two hours, Gli ultimi giorni was one of the longest, most sumptuous, and most expensive Italian movies realized up to that point. It exemplifies the efforts of Italian film companies to reclaim their former leading position in film-making. Building on the tradition of the Gilded Age of Italian cinema, they created lavish and costly movies set in Roman antiquity. Ultimately, these anachronistic productions could not compete with the lively acting and dynamic film cutting of contemporary American cinema.

The rare print of Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei is shown in conjunction with the lecture Images of the Doomed City: The Last Days of Pompeii in the Visual Imagination, by Adrian Staehli, Professor of Classical Archaeology, Department of the Classics on September 20 at 6pm at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum. Staehli will give a short introduction to the movie. Print courtesy of the British Film Institute.

This screening is funded in part by the M. Victor Leventritt Fund, which was established through the generosity of the wife, children, and friends of the late M. Victor Leventritt, Harvard Class of 1935. The purpose of the fund is to present outstanding scholars of the history and theory of art to the Harvard and Greater Boston communities.

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