Roberto Rossellini (1906–77) spent the last fourteen years of his career making what he called pedagogical films, principally for television. In his view, these works constituted a major break with existing cinema; they were a new form, neither art nor entertainment, and the director himself now wanted to be considered as an educator, not an artist.footnote1 They included multi-part series on human historical development—the 5-hour The Iron Age (1964) and 12-hour Man’s Struggle for Survival (1967–69)—as well as portraits of innovators in the fields of politics—Cosimo de Medici, Louis xiv—and ideas: Socrates, Augustine, Descartes, Pascal. Rossellini’s account of Man’s Struggle for Survival, in a 1972 letter to the historian of American slavery, Peter Wood, gives a sense of the project’s ambitions:

With Man’s Struggle for Survival, I tried to delineate a general historic picture from the caveman to the man of our time. I showed the passage of the hunting, fishing and fruit-picking epoch to the agricultural civilization, which is matriarchal. It is man’s first step toward living from nature, rather than in nature. Then I describe, with the arrival of the Hellenists in the Mediterranean, the change to a patriarchal society. I tell of the development of the Egyptian civilization, the fall of Rome, the transformation of predatory, barbaric tribes into farmers. The monastic movement with its ideal of prayer and work. The formation of feudal society. The crusades. The advent of the artisans, inhabitants of boroughs; the bourgeoisie. The formation of communal society. The troubadour movement. The foundation of the university. The development of alchemy, the yearning for science. The diffusion of the machine. Christopher Columbus. The beginnings of the scientific era: Galileo, Rabelais, Harvey, Lavoisier, Franklin, Galvani, Volta, Pasteur. Then Watt’s steam engine, Stephenson’s locomotive, Morse’s telegraph, Marconi’s wireless. Finally, the contemporary age: the space adventure, student revolution, the hippies, the bewilderment in which we writhe.footnote2

Totalling over forty hours, these educational works make up a good half of Rossellini’s entire output—a surprising proportion, given that the director is mainly remembered as the father of post-war Italian neo-realism, the director of seminal films like Rome Open City (1945) and Paisà (1946). Even the French Cahiers du cinéma writers, for whom Rossellini had been a canonical figure, generally neglected the substantial body of television work in favour of the maestro’s second ‘great period’, that string of proto-modernist works—Stromboli (1950), Europa 51 (1952), Journey to Italy (1954)—featuring Ingrid Bergman. At the time of their initial broadcast in the 1960s and 70s, former Rossellini admirers like François Truffaut dismissed the pedagogical works entirely.footnote3

Over the past decade, dvd editions of some of these works—Rise to Power of Louis xiv (1966), Blaise Pascal (1971), Age of the Medici (1972), Cartesius (1973)—have begun to appear in Italy, France, the us and uk; seasons of ‘Rossellini’s Television History’ have been screened at the New York Museum of Modern Art and British Film Institute. A collection of Rossellini’s extensive writings and interviews on the project has appeared in France, edited by Adriano Aprà, and Jean-Louis Comolli has devoted a television documentary to it.footnote4 Yet much of Rossellini’s work from this period remains inaccessible to the public, leaving a lacuna in our understanding of an otherwise well-studied filmmaker. Why, from the early 1960s, should the founder of Italian neo-realism, one of the originators of European cinematic modernism, dedicate himself to educational television? This essay will consider the meaning of Rossellini’s pedagogical project as a large-scale, systematic undertaking in its own right. In part, the insistence on treating this body of work as a unified and theoretically grounded project, and taking Rossellini’s claims for it seriously, is a corrective and polemical one. The importance and originality of this output have generally been minimized, for two reasons.

First, and understandably, these works have mainly been discussed within the context of auteurist studies of Rossellini, which have emphasized close readings of individual films and their formal or ‘artistic’ aspects, with less attention to the project’s theoretical positioning and broader context.footnote5 Second, the predominant characterization of them has been that of Rossellini’s English-language biographer, Tag Gallagher, who acts as a kind of official interpreter through his liner notes and ‘video’ essays on the American dvds of the films, and who sees them as little more than modernist art cinema in disguise. Despite his appreciation for them, Gallagher downplays their differences from the rest of Rossellini’s work, dismissing his ambitious conceptual framework for them as a mere cover for business as usual. For Gallagher, Rossellini’s claims of moving beyond art cinema were ‘patent hypocrisy’: ‘he wanted to do non-art but only succeeded at art.’footnote6 Against this prevailing interpretation, I will try to contextualize Rossellini’s later output within a broader cultural and historical framework, to elucidate its theoretical basis and to signal its profound differences with the approach of modernist art cinema. Its significance lies in part in its epochal attempt to re-join art and education, torn asunder by modernism, at the historical moment of the 1960s and 70s, when the status of art and its socio-political agency still seemed open, before the hardening of political-economic realities and the formulation of theories of post-modernism, with their accompanying nostalgia for modernism.footnote7

From the start, Rossellini’s film career had combined absolute assurance with radical changes in direction. Born in 1906 into a comfortably off Roman family—his father owned a construction company that did well under Mussolini—he had gravitated to the film industry by 1932, working as a dubbing assistant on early sound films. His first feature films, including war propaganda for the fascist regime, were already stylistically innovative. He began work on the script of Rome Open City in August 1944, within two months of the Allied occupation of Rome; it was released in 1946 to international acclaim. His collaboration with Bergman began in 1948, with the onset of the high Cold War and crushing victory of the Christian Democrats in Italy; after the split with Bergman, he travelled to India to film a 10-part tv series, L’India vista da Rossellini, for rai, and India: Matri Bhumi (1959). A run of historical feature films followed, including Viva L’Italia! (1960)—released as Garibaldi in the us—produced for the centenary of Italian unification, and Vanina Vanini (1961), adapted from Stendhal’s Chroniques italiennes. Now in his mid-fifties, Rossellini confronted a country transformed by the post-war ‘economic miracle’ and American consumerism, the breakneck industrialization of the Italian north sucking in a new proletariat from the rural south. It was at this point that he signalled a decisive new transition, amounting to a renunciation of the cinema as an institution: ‘I wish to withdraw from the profession’, he announced in a 1963 interview. ‘I believe that what is necessary today is to prepare, in full liberty, to reexamine everything from the beginning, in order to be able to embark on a path with completely different foundations.’footnote8

Behind Rossellini’s public declarations lay a set of theoretical considerations that help to reveal the historical and cultural motivations underlying his project. The opposition between high art and mass culture, between modernism and kitsch, structured much of the discourse around cultural production in this period, and Rossellini’s project was initially proposed as an antidote to the mass-market products of the ‘culture industry’. There is no evidence that Rossellini ever read Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, but in some respects his position is very close to theirs, although the conclusions he drew from it were uniquely his own. He did repeatedly cite Dwight Macdonald’s ‘A Theory of Mass Culture’, which explored the Frankfurt School’s viewpoint that mass culture is used by the ruling classes to ‘exploit the cultural needs of the masses in order to make a profit and/or to maintain their class rule’. Another frequent reference point was Clement Greenberg’s distinction between high art and kitsch.footnote9