When in Rome… Palm Springs Stephan details some of the era’s fixation with all things Roman, Greek & Mediterranean

Several weeks ago, we had a feature on Romany Spartan tile… which led to my question about, “Why all this Roman stuff?” It’s also come up before, with all the horse motifs with their greco-roman styling. And, the the mock-marble laminates – and faux-terrazzo flooring. All I have to do is hint, and Palm Springs Stephan has some wonderful thoughts!

Hey, I have a follow-up question, PSS: Do you think that the the phenomenon of airplane travel, which also really took off post war, excuse the bad pun, also led to increasing fascination with these other cultures, especially, as you say, in the European theater?

Thank you as usual, Professor! Here is Stephan’s discussion:

Since you asked, Pam…..

“Spartacus” came out in 1960.

And yes, the 1950s and early 1960s witnessed a real fascination with Roman, Greek, and Mediterranean cultural influences. I am not sure whether that was fueled by Hollywood or vice versa. But since Hollywood history is one of my passions….

Some of the hit films of the era with Roman, Greek, or Mediterranean subjects, both ancient and modern:

“Quo Vadis,” 1951, nominated for 8 Oscars
“David and Bathsheba,” 1951, 1 Oscar nomination
“The Robe,” 1953, won 2 Oscars
“Julius Caesar,” 1953, 5 Oscar nominations (1 win)
“Roman Holiday,” 1953, 10 Oscar nominations (3 wins)
“The Egyptian,” 1954, 1 Oscar nomination
“Three Coins in the Fountain,” 1954, 1 Oscar nomination, set in Rome
“The Ten Commandments,” 1956, 7 Oscar nominations
“An Affair to Remember,” 1957, 4 Oscar nominations, portions take place on the Italian Riviera
“Ben Hur,” 1959, won 11 Oscars
“La Dolce Vita,” 1960, 1 Oscar nomination
“Roman Spring of Mrs Stone,” 1961 Oscar nomination
“Divorce-Italian Style,” 1961, 3 Oscar nominations
“Cleopatra,” 1963, 9 Oscar nominations
“The Fall of the Roman Empire,” 1964, 1 Oscar nomination
“The Agony and the Ecstacy,” 1965, 5 Oscar nominations, set in Rome

Many of these films, such as “Cleopatra” and “Ben Hur,” were done in the epic style and utilized the newer Panavision and Todd AO filming techniques, and they received huge publicity even as they were being filmed, increasing their cultural influence. And these are only the films that received Oscar nominations. Recall too that the 1950s were the era of cheaply and rapidly made lesser films, such low-brow “classics” as the films of Steve Reeves, including the Hercules series (Hercules, Hercules Unchained), Last Days of Pompeii, Duel of the Titans (about the founding of Rome), and The Trojan Horse.

The late 1950s and early 1960s were also the heyday for Federico Fellini, Italy’s greatest film director, as well as for Sophia Loren. And it was the period in which Ingrid Bergman outraged Americans by having an openly adulterous affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini, bearing him two children.

I’m not sure that “everyone was traveling to Italy,” but there was certainly an upswing in the popularity of Mediterranean holidays in the two decades after World War II. This may have been in part the result (as with the tiki phenomenon discussed earlier) of soldiers who had served in the Mediterranean theater during the war who, once established and affluent, wanted to return to an area that they remembered with some degree of fondness.

  1. Courtney says:

    That is a classy list. I wonder what our film trends look like now?

    Also, the ruins of Pompeii were opened to the public in the 60s. I bet that had a huge design influence (like the Egyptian tombs on Deco).

  2. I am not convinced that transatlantic airplane travel, as a distinct phenomenon, had a direct impact on the growing awareness of other cultures in the immediate post-war period, largely because air travel did not replace travel by ship until the later 1960s. It is important to recall that prior to the introduction of the Boeing 747 in 1970, transatlantic air-travel was conducted by small aircraft carrying relatively small numbers of people, left from only one US city (NYC), often made a refueling stop in Gander, Newfoundland, and took a great deal longer than it does now, even without our modern security inconveniences and delays. Actual travel time, NYC to London, by jet aircraft in 1960 was sometimes as much as 10-14 hours, and as much as 18 hours by prop plane (such as the Lockheed Constellation) compared to 5-6 hours by modern Boeing 747s or Airbuses.

    A single passenger ship might carry 1000 or more passengers, while a single Lockheed Constellation carried only about 75 on transatlantic flights (100 on short-haul domestic), a Boeing 707 carried 110-140, and a Douglas DC-8 carried 125-200. Dozens of ships departing from multiple east-coast cities carried tens of thousands of passengers per week before 1965, while a similar number of aircraft leaving only from NYC and making daily or every-other-day flights carried only a few thousand passengers per week.

    And transatlantic air travel was hugely expensive in the immediate post-war period. Prior to the early and mid 1960s passenger ships remained “the way to go,” largely for reasons of cost. I find an advertisement from circa 1960 for the United States Line of passenger ships that offers transatlantic crossings on the SS United States (which left service in 1969) for $181 tourist class, and on the SS America (ended service 1964) for $174. Compare that to BOAC’s advertised prices of around $300 for economy class on their de Haviland jets in 1960. Airfare was, on average, 30% more expensive. And for the lesser cost of ship travel, the passenger received a far better “bang for the buck”: comfortable personal accommodations much larger than an airliner seat, three meals per day for 4-6 days, extensive onboard entertainment and social opportunities, and other amenities. Even with the larger seats and far better cabin service of early air travel, the only advantage for airline travel lay in speed. (For the record, I still travel by ship from NYC whenever I go to the UK for work … usually 1-2 times per year. I am a Cunard “frequent sailor.”)

    If anything, I would argue that the increase in the use of airliners, rather than ships, was driven by trans-oceanic cultural interests, and not cultural interests by increasing air travel. US soldiers traveling extensively in Europe during service in WWII represent the first time in US history that significant numbers of US citizens were directly exposed to foreign cultures through first-hand experience, resulting in an increased desire among those former soldiers for foreign travel in the post-war decades. Post-war prosperity allowed ever greater numbers of former-soldier American working men to travel, often with their (non-working) wives, back to Europe to revisit the places they had seen during their war service. But American work and vacation schedules being what they are, with only two weeks or less in vacation per year in the 1950s-1960s, time became a factor. Round-trip travel by ship took an absolute minimum of 2 weeks, leaving no time for travel to a coastal seaport or for sightseeing in Europe. Air travel provided the required speed and solved the time-efficiency problem, while post-war prosperity provided the money for the increased cost of air travel. Transatlantic air service grew because people wanted to travel and to see foreign cultures. Desire for travel and interest in foreign cultures did not grow simply because expensive air travel was newly available.

  3. Courtney says:

    Was that a response to me? Oh, I didn’t mean to infer a relationship to airplane travel. Design influence has its own magic flying properties. Think of all that Greek Revival in our 18th and 19th century municipal buildings! That era’s Greek Revival is totally a direct result of archaeological expeditions (and you know, the concept of democracy, blabbedy blah). I suppose it seems arcane now, but archaeology used to have a huge impact on architecture and design— those dudes at the 1925 French Exposition were real into the so-called primitive elements of discoveries from African digs, and all those Art Deco zig-zags are straight out of Tut’s tomb, which was busted open in ‘23. Those events captivated the whole world. I think that fascination lasted in the mainstream for as long as those digs were still novel, as long as they showed up in full force in Life magazine, and spiking as major exhibits made the rounds through metro museums. Maybe the cosmopolitan and rich were lucky enough to fly to Pompeii, but mostly, I think Pompeii flew here, on the pages of National Geographic. Hey, think of that Flintstones trend. Have you seen how many caveman rooms there are at the Madonna Inn?! (ps, I beg you to look that up. You will not regret it. Welcome to my honeymoon suite.)

  4. Femme1 says:

    As a collector of mid-century dinner- and glassware, I can vouch for Roman design trends in that area of design also. If you look at the late 50s and early 60s glassware decorated with the same stylized horse motifs and roman-coin designs.

  5. Pingback:Retro Renovation » Susan and her Granada Hills Greg-inspired Moe lights — I see us all heading straight into the heart of the 60s!

  6. Colleen says:

    Soo…I’m not doing a tragic disservice to my 1950 ranch with my Italian fascination?! Having lived over there twice (once for school and once for work), I have brought back a few of what I consider treasures. My new greatest addition is an authentic 1960’s import though. I go tomorrow to pick up my 1966 vintage Vespa complete with original “mickey mouse” 1960’s US import tailight! Not the “Roman Holiday” early 1950’s fender headlight model but a mid sixties FAST 180 SS….fully restored!

    Now I’m inspired to dig out my copy of “Three Coins in the Fountain” (which, if you ask me really does work because I have returned there MANY times…)…and then maybe Giget goes to Rome…;) …

  7. Pam Kueber says:

    Go for it, Colleen. I’ll have to take a picture of my grandmother-in-law’s venetian watercolors, which we inherited and have in the office. SO TYPICAL of the era. Italian-Greek-Spanish: All wonderful to collect.

  8. Colleen says:

    I would LOVE to see the venetian watercolors!!! The oil painting I plan on doing for above my fireplace is of a venetian market. (The red-orange awnings in the market should help tie in my vibrant red-orange wall color…) Funny, but in the Bond movie “Casino Royal” they have a scene where they show the exact market, minus the awnings. If you would like to see the Vespa, I’ll take some pics after I unload it and add them to my flickr site.

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