Fellini’s Satyricon (1969) and the art of the real Roman Empire (October 1, 2013)

In the modern era, which I define as from 1860 to 1980, rationality was the measure of the real, and any relation to dream was considered irrational or surreal: the dream was compartmentalized, and linked to mental illness, even. Today, in the context of what I call relational-physiological criticism, art is worked out from templates deeply embedded in the physiology of the human being, and the distinction between rational and irrational has become considerably more complicated. Because in 1969 movies were expected to be new wave or realist or whatever, any reference to dream was suspect somehow, or at least read in higher profile as confusing. A cursory review of the contemporary critical response to Fellini’s Satyricon would seem to confirm this, as everyone only responds to its exceptionally odd dreamlike quality.

But, today, it is better recognized that most of the art of film is dreamlike, and the operation of film per se on the waking mind is not unlike a kind of dreaming (Belting). As viewer interacts with the film, he experiences it, and imprints it with his own readings, and then draws other inferences, it becomes in the mind of the medium of a human recipient, a kind of dream. So, I no longer find Fellini’s Satyricon particularly dreamy: or rather, it is important to map out the physiology of relations that make it dreamy. There are five stages of falling asleep, which can be exploited to induce one in film to a kind of dreaming, and Fellini uses all of them. In the static or entoptic stage, a static of smoke in the eyes, of which there is much here. The main theme by which this is made clear is the primitive: since most of the action happens outside of Rome, Fellini is free to imagine a much less marble society. The plainness of décor strikes one as stagey, minimal, and dreamy, as in here, the volcano apartment complex

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With regard to the glass onion stage of falling, which is conveyed by symbols and sigils, the most distinctive way this is shown is through the constant use of a strange semaphore of hand signals, it really is very curious, but in keeping

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At the third stage, the lattice forms, fixating images, hanging there, and here
Fellini combines two aspects of Roman art, the everpresence of the emperor,
which makes him imagine his image showing up in the oddest of forms of
devotion, including this classic lattice chariot

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And in the constant presence of spectator faces staring at the camera, which is typical of extreme drowsiness, I will take this example as typical of the visual composition he repeatedly seeks, the profile from the side, classic lattice formation, and then people looking out, here in the art gallery

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This also allows me to say that he conveys a storybook sense of the look of the
culture by taking off on its art. Though this is a later time, and the poet
deplores the death of painting, so all of these examples are in the art museum,
which is modeled on museum displays of triumphant banner paintings,

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He (or his art directors) also makes repeated use of Pompeii, as if the style spread through the empire. Here is a loose take off on the Villa of the Mysteries Dionysius mural

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In front of which he stages some gentle and fun sex play with the boys and a very
cute good sport, an African slave

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Finally, with the wormhole, he has many labyrinths and passageways

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and then, I suppose, for its time, the pure deep dream are some of the ritualized actions of the time, as depicted by him, and likely seen as fantasy and exaggeration by audiences of the time. So, Fellini does a wonderful job of creating a reverie, a dreamy hypnagogic state, in which we float, in the movie.

But then there is the deeper issue. In recent years, my view of Roman society has shifted over from a rational-civilizational to the voodoo-cultural: that is, from a civic-judicial view, to a religious-superstitious view. This view better frames the reality of the art. As a result, the textbook images and interpretations of Roman art seem lacking, they do not have enough of the magic and religion of the image in the image. Worse, they have little sense of the agency of the image, the fact that as ancients Romans had some art, but much of it remained ritual objects used for agentic reasons: either in cult, intercession, votive-sacrificial or apotropaic form. In exploring how to visualize the more prominent role these purposes played in Rome, distorting the art past art, and too often in forms that have not survived, skewering our perception, I in fact had occasion to reference Fellini. And what struck me was that his description of a Roman triumph parade, though simplified, was probably much more accurate than straight history. In his parade, crucified soldiers were carried in parade. Since we now know that there was a wax effigy of the dead Caesar on his cross at his funeral, it is not outside the realm of possibility that this is an accurate depiction of agentic history,

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He showed very large statues being carted off, and carted before the people, booty, and we now know, both from Mantegna and historical reconstructions, you cannot exaggerate how much booty the Romans paraded through their streets, these objects then set in the halls of the Forum as the world’s first art museum, but all of it trophies, votives of a sort

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Since we know that the Romans like the Greeks were obsessed with capturing the palladium of a place, the fact that Fellini fashioned for an Egyptian one a cart with
other objects, suggesting in this arrangement as well that these carts may have
been the prototypes of the circus wagons they are said to be the grandfathers
of, this made sense to me

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The Roman interest in panoply, fantastical accumulations of armor, may have extended to instruments, maybe this surreal object, clearly a fantasy, will be found some day to have a counterpart in reality.

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But we certainly now know the parades were festooned with large long canvas banners
depicting the history of the campaign and images of the emperor so this unique
image as far as I know is by no means an exaggeration

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As long as you view history as judicial, then this sort of thing will be minimized; the minute you overlay onto it an agentic purpose, booty to offer in triumph and therefore good luck and good omen to the gods, then any amount of exaggeration is possible. This is what the agentic view, it washes away the restraints of reason, to allow for a more accurate depiction off the vitality of the living moment in culture. And that is all Fellini, with his actionable instincts was doing, it is not dream, it is an attempt to capture the sacred real history of the Romans.

This theme carries over in his sense of their ritualism. Their plays are plays, but also partly religious ceremonies, connected, so they are about what they are about, they are also tributes to Caesar. If they look odd, that is because they are religious

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Women alone in private will still do offering to their goddess, Romans with their
functional and other gods, had a god to thank all the time for everything, they
were always at it, as the complexity of their lives multiplied, so their gods

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In the apartment, perhaps private citizens, story may tell, dressed their wives up
as goddesses too, or insisted that their prostitutes dressed that way, to bless
the proceeding

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Though I confess I do not know what this tangle is, unless a stirigulated spooky stick, a female equivalent of the axis mundi

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some works of art, in the art museum were likely once religious statues

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Particularly impressive on this theme, the cult theme, is the banquet of the wealthy man. It starts with a surreal scene in which all of his acolytes or those who depend
upon him gather in a bath and stand their naked offering him praises, with
candles, very odd, but not outside the realm of possibility in a world with
lares statue rituals, the keeping of the lares and the vestal virgins keeping
the flame, and other elements like that

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As for his banquet, it is clearly a major occasion, full of omens and portents,
again a quasi religious lares-religious household event. For that reason, the
meat has to be cooked whole, and presented, as presentation is what makes the
gods pleased

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since the gods need proof that they are being offered the best, perhaps you crown
them, the greeks just put ribbons on their sacrificial lambs, but the Romans
would be gaudier

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The evening moves along from dinner to after dinner talk, it drifts into ritual, the lares is there, the pater familias serves as the household priest by saying some philosophical things, there is nothing here that is entirely out of keeping with a view of Romans as more superstitious

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I especially like it that the scale of the cooking makes it a kind Romanized civilized version of Greek animal sacrifice, domesticated into cooking and consumption, making it more householdly and personal. At the same time, if a guest offends him, which would bring bad luck on the house, it is his job to then expel him, and sacrifice him, and so the great fire is also a pyre on which a human criminal can be burnt. It makes sense

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Then we find out that likely taken from Petronius’ view of decadence this is all a
ruse, a practice mock funeral so that the old man can elide the difference
between life and death and perhaps not fear death so much by going through
rehearsals of his funeral, for which he has hired all sorts of performers to
play the part of the mourners

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On the ship of another master, we find another example of decadence: master who
must prove his manhood, at his age, by wrestling, and then when he falls for a
boy, he wants to marry him. The boat is a modernist idea, but not entirely out
of keeping with what I have seen of Roman ships

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Here too everything is about sacrifice: this is an animal sacrifice to bless the
ship and bless the ceremony

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The strange wedding is held (he might merely have been marrying his human good luck charm)

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Then the boat is taken over and the master is decapitated, the wife relieved, and
the regime ends, with a triumphant parade. The final scenes represent the
wanderings of the friends. The ritual suicide of another couple is entirely in
keeping with my knowledge of the Romans. The house they leave behind for the
men to romp in with an African slave is a fair copy of a Pompeiian house. Then
they find out about an oracle, and one imagines that this is off in the empire
somewhere, but the Romans in fact did deify hermaphrodites and were absolutely
mad about augury and prophecy, so this too shows them at their superstitions
worst, or best

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So, cult (lares), intercession (oracle), votive sacrifice, aprotropaics, it is all there: if you release Rome from the bracket of judicial rationalism, and treat it as the agentic religious society it was, which, faced with decadence and complexity, became more and more superstitious, almost bureaucrats of the superstitious, with all their functional gods, in fact the Romans were more like Fellini than Ben Hur.

But I save for last an added layer: the Romans, seeking more gods, more luck, more booty, more empire, became mad syncretizers. I have looked to Satyricon over the years not because I like the movie, because when I saw it I was absolutely nonplussed, but because of a lingering sense that it captured the strange mixtures of cultures that occurred in the outer reaches of the empire. I see Satyricon taking place in the same part of the universe as the salt mine scenes in Barrabas, and I also see a strong connection between Fellini’s attempt at Rome and the Rome or Greece depicted in the robust sword and sandal epic movie industry in Italy at the time. Those movies I have looked to to guide me in imaging agency as it applies to ancient art in a more robust way. I have found some examples, many mistakes, but standard practice is to freely mix up elements from other cultures, and mix elements of Rome and parts of the empire to create fantasy type states of being. This strategy of cinematic syncretism was also adopted by Ray Harryhausen in the Sinbad movies, especially Eye of the Tiger. And so when we get to the Minotaur in the maze, in fact, compared to The Minotaur, a sword and sandal movie, Fellini pulls back in from the dreamy exaggeration of agency, and makes of him a hired soldier with a mask on

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The young man then enters into the maze. The maze has art, and the art is rather
Picassolike, it does not look like art of the time, or, if so, more graffiti
oriented art, local scatchings,

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And again.

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At one point however the fight goes into a room made of tablata, which is an
Egyptian thing, reassembled on a lark, here

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And then out front, there is an odd owl herm, marking the boundary, it has a greek

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But then we find that the maze in fact is more like a garden maze without a roof,
and it is sport being watched by crowds up on a cliff. This cliff, the image
carved in it, though I do not know where the detail of the crowds positioned
like that comes from, derives from 1st century Bamiyan, Afghanistan,

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This is clearly copied off of the Buddhas

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And then when we get out in front of the maze, we find out that this is the
tradition of the Minotaur, from ancient Greece, incorporated into the practices
of recreation of foreign sites in the gladiatorial games, and the gladiators
then have a power to dispute the call. We also find out that this is a festival
of mirth, and a stranger has been put to this test as a practical joke, but
also to bring good luck on the town, so it is related to some story or
tradition. But then when the young man is released from his poor performance he
must then perform another kind of good luck ritual. He must make love in public
in front of the cheering crowd to the great Felliniesque concubine and
fertilize her as his erection and his coming will bring good luck to the town.
And this outdoor bed, set around a dug trench, is graced by a large female
statue from way stone age Malta, not something the Romans would have known

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When he fails the test, because he cannot “get it up”, there is no pity, as he has
brought bad luck on the town. He is also shamed because in the era of Priapus
male prowess was the symbol of one’s manhood and the blessings of the god upon
you, without it, you are doomed. So he is taken by the now rich poet to the
local Garden of Delights. This, it turns out, is a most curious ghetto,
structured not unlike the volcano ghetto, as a series of mudbrick apartments
around a central well. The walls are painted with images that syncretize Indian
and Hindu painting, plus the kama sutra, from a later time. The floor is sand,
raked into zen gardens by a gardener

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The cure for his impotence is to get a whipping with sticks on his backside, a
custom still carried out in some parts of East Europe, as whipping was thought traditionally to stir up the blood and the blood then would run to the penis. There are also swings, which I don’t know if the Romans had (though the Greeks did, and the
Cretans had images of goddesses swinging, as their open skirts were said to
bring fertility, a skirted tradition carried on by gypsies claiming husbands

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And then, since this fails, he is distraught, and he seeks out a cure at another
far off oracle, this one apparently at the African side of the empire. There,
Fellini tells the wonderful story of the witch cursed to provide all the fire
of the town by having her loins created fire, a really wonderful story (and one
which struck me as uncanny in coincidence of time since I wrote of the fiery
nature of Whitewood in Horror Hotel (1960) a few days ago)

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The swamp is the goddesses, as symbolized by an ancient fertility item under the
surface of the water

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There is at the site too a classic African voodoo fetish (one supposes that, theoretically, these might have existed  then), with nails pounded in.

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And then in the fire, and the heat, he is given the Fellini solution to impotence, more flesh, mounds of flesh, big women, monumental women, who look like the ancient fertility goddesses of mankind, when they lay back to take you in. And while the truth is that any objectifying modern lovemeister would back off in fear of falling into such an expanse of dark feminine power, the young man climbs aboard and goes to his business, and is successful, he is cured, he is virile again. And then the movie winds its way down.

In its dreaming structure, then, in its expansion of the conception of the Roman to an agency-obsessed decadently-religious culture (that is, coping with complexity, stretching religious practice into regressive magic), and in adapting for more arty purposes some standard fantastical practices of spaghetti Sword and Sandal movies, Fellini in fact, in my view, creates a rather accurate-in-spirit picture of the mindset of the Romans in the time of Petronius. It is not dream, it is not authorial fantasy, it is not Fellini imagination, it is not surreality, it is not weirdness for weirdness sake, it is good anthropology, reinforced by Fellini’s grasp of the essential dramas of human life, and his knowledge that movie is dream, that all makes it come out as a fairly effective treatment of ancient Rome.






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