May 28


The Great Beauty Tour of Rome

By Rick

May 28, 2014

The opening scene of Paolo Sorrentino’s Academy Award-winning film, La Grande Bellezza, lets us know exactly what we’re in for: a collective attack of Stendhal syndrome.  A tourist beholds Rome from above, is overcome by its great beauty, and then promptly dies on the spot.  This might sound like Italian-style operatic melodrama to some, but don’t be too sure.  In this American’s mind, it’s entirely possible. This city has caused my heart to skip a beat more than once over the years.

Looking to recreate the same emotion, if not the final death blow, I joined our host for the weekend, Baglioni Regina Hotel, for their “La Grande Bellezza Experience,” The Great Beauty Tour of Rome. We were treated like high-society VIPs for a day, escorted around to the various filming locations by two guides and a professional driver.  Just to make sure that we’d be able to connect the sites of the tour with the scenes of the movie, they sent a copy of the DVD to our rooms the night before, so I was able to watch it for a second time and refresh my memory.

the great beauty tourFor those who haven’t seen the film, the cinematography alone is enough to warrant a viewing.  Pretty scenes are not such a difficult task when your main character is the city of Rome.

But of course Rome can’t actually speak for itself, so Sorrentino introduces us to Jep Gambardella, an aging novelist with a chronic case of writer’s block who becomes our guide through the upscale sleaze of the modern city—much the same way that Federico Fellini followed Marcello around Rome 55 years ago in La Dolce Vita.

The comparisons between the two films began immediately after last year’s release of La Grande Bellezza.  For one thing, the Fellini-esque moments in this new film are impossible to miss.  Just when you think you’re starting to sense the slightest suggestion of a plot, you’re abruptly yanked inside one of Sorrentino’s muddled dreams—a trick that Fellini enjoyed playing on his audience, as well.

Some of the more surreal moments include a plastic surgeon’s studio that’s part theater of the absurd, part carnival freak show.  A giraffe wanders among the Baths of Caracalla as a magician attempts to make it disappear; the feisty dwarf who happens to be Jep’s editor and confidant; a flock of pink flamingos who halt their migration to rest on Jep’s balcony overlooking the Coliseum.  A mystic nun that bears a striking resemblance to Mother Teresa falls asleep on Jep’s bedroom floor (because she’s unaccustomed to a mattress, apparently), startling him in the middle of the night.  She asks our protagonist the pointed question that everybody wants to know the answer to: “Why didn’t you ever write a second novel?”

He responds, “I was looking for the great beauty. But I never found it.”

The result of all of these fragmented vignettes is hallucinogenic; so discordant that it breaks your concentration, makes you forget all about story and plot, and begs you to just admire the seductive visuals.

The Great Beauty Tour

During our tour, we were able to actually visit many of these sites, standing both in Jep’s shoes, as well as Sorrentino’s.  We stood in Piazza Garibaldi as the cannone fired off at 12:00 sharp. We strolled the Old Appian Way, alongside ancient Roman aqueducts, the scene of the performance artist who strips naked (revealing that she’s “red” in every sense of the word—I’d show a screenshot, but I’m trying to avoid the NC-17 rating for my blog) then rams head first into the stone wall. We drank from the same fountain as Jep, as he watched a convent of little girls chase after a young nun in the labyrinthine garden.  We dined in high-society style at the Ristorante Brunello, indulging in a feast worthy of Jep’s crowd.  Finally, we went up to the Roman Penthouse Suite for a sunset view of Rome’s Great Beauty.  It was too early for a rave party or conga line, but it wasn’t hard to imagine the possibilities in such swanky digs.  Here some pictures from our day:


One can get used to this type of treatment.  In fact, I forgive Jep for finding hard to escape this lifestyle long enough to write his second novel.  Rome has a way of enticing you, of distracting you, of hypnotizing you with its many charms.

However, Rome is also a city of contrasts, and to truly love it is to accept both the good and the bad.  A pile of uncollected garbage sits right next to one of Bernini’s fountains.  Walking by a bakery you smell fresh baked cornetti; a moment later, you round the corner and take in a mouthful of diesel exhaust from a tour bus.

That is Rome, at once appealing and appalling, and what you see very much depends on what you’re looking for.  I’m surprised that Jep didn’t realize this sooner.

But, as he says, “It’s all settled beneath the chitter-chatter and the noise, silence and sentiment, emotion and fear.  The haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty.”

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About the author

Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

  • Rick, what a great post! I saw the movie twice, but didn’t think of the Stendahl Syndrome for the opener. How right you are! (Do you think the director intended that interpretation, though?). Another question: Was Jep’s pad really THAT close to the colloseum?

  • What a beautifully written piece my friend! You have certainly piqued my curiosity as you intertwined your experiences with scenes from the film. I have never heard of it until now and thanks to you, I will seek it out to meet our Jep.

    I had to laugh as you described Rome as appealing yet appalling, and despite the fact that it’s true, it’s part of Rome’s charm, the old and new, juxtaposed and surviving. I love it all as I am sure you do too!

    • Thanks so much, Jeff! Yes, that is definitely part of Rome’s charm, and the contrasts make the beautiful parts all that much more appealing! Thanks for stopping by my blog, my friend!!

  • Fun post to read. I recognized some of what you described from the film. I expect a secnd viewing would help me appreciate more than the beauty of my favorite city. And, of course, I have experienced the good and bad you describe too. Loved the pictures though there are a couple I have never and will never see. But one question–the top one? Is it the view from the key hole on the hill (the Aventine? I don’t have time to look it up now!)?
    Thanks for the memories!

    • Yes, a second viewing (and a tour) helps! And you’re exactly right, Joan…the keyhole is the famous one on the Aventine belonging to the Knights of Malta.

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