At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

5 March 2019

Pier Paolo Pasolini - writer and film director

Controversial figure who met violent death


Pier Paolo Pasolini courted controversy in his films, his private life and his politics
Pier Paolo Pasolini courted controversy in his films,
his private life and his politics
The novelist, writer and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini was born on this day in 1922 in Bologna.

Pasolini's best-known work included his portrayal of Jesus Christ in The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), his bawdy adaptations of such literary classics as Boccaccio’s Decameron (1971) and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1972), and and his brutal satire on Fascism entitled Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). 

He also wrote novels and poetry, made documentaries, directed for the theatre and was an outspoken columnist for the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera, expressing political views that would regularly spark heated debate.

A former member of the Communist Party and openly homosexual, Pasolini died in violent circumstances in Ostia, near Rome, in November 1975, supposedly murdered by a young man he had picked up at the city’s Termini railway station, although there was some mystery around the incident and speculation over motives continues to this day.

The son of an army lieutenant, Pasolini lived in various northern Italian towns in his childhood, determined by his father’s postings. Family life was somewhat turbulent. His father spent time in prison over gambling debts but was also the man who detained Anteo Zamboni, a teenager suspected of attempting to assassinate Mussolini in 1926.

The house where Pasolini was born in Bologna - now an office of the Guardia di Finanzia, is marked with a plaque
The house where Pasolini was born in Bologna - now an
office of the Guardia di Finanzia, is marked with a plaque
Pasolini graduated from the University of Bologna and began to pursue an interest in writing poetry that he had nurtured since the age of seven, inspired by the beauty of Casarsa della Delizia, a town in Friuli and the home of his mother’s family. He published his first volume of poetry in 1942.

He attributed his mostly Marxist politics to his experience of the oppressed peasant communities around Casarsa. His 19-year-old brother Guido, a member of the anti-Fascist Partito d’Azione, was accidentally killed in by partisans in an ambush.

After 1945, Pasolini worked as a secondary school teacher in nearby Valvasone but his activities as a Communist Party member made him a controversial figure and he was eventually forced out of his job by the local Christian Democrats, whom he accused of manufacturing a scandal that saw him charged with the "corruption of minors and (committing) obscene acts in public places".

In January 1950, Pasolini moved to Rome with his mother Susanna to start a new life. He was later acquitted of both charges. They moved to the run-down suburb of Rebibbia, next to a prison, which provided the inspiration for his first novels, which dealt with the violent lives of poor proletarian immigrants living in often horrendous sanitary and social conditions, and his debut movie, Accattone (1961).

Pasolini taking part in a radio broadcast in Rome in 1975
Pasolini taking part in a radio broadcast
in Rome in 1975
Prior to that he had worked variously as a teacher in Ciampino and a writer for Italian state radio before making the acquaintance of the director Federico Fellini, who employed him to help with the Roman dialect in both Le notti di Cabiria and La Dolce Vita.

Pasolini was prepared to tackle controversial subjects. Mamma Roma (1962), featuring Anna Magnani, which told the story of a prostitute and her son, was considered an affront to morality and widely criticised.

The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964), which won awards at both the Venice Film Festival and BAFTA, also attracted criticism, portraying Christ as a revolutionary ‘Red Messiah’, but Pasolini vowed to direct it from the "believer's point of view" and the Catholic Church has since described it as “the best film ever made about Jesus Christ.”

He attracted criticism for different reasons with his sex-laden Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), and Il fiore delle mille e una notte (literally The Flower of 1001 Nights, released in English as Arabian Nights, 1974), his Trilogy of Life, which celebrated the human body while commenting on contemporary sexual and religious mores and hypocrisies. They were hugely popular, Decameron and The Canterbury Tales winning awards at the Berlin Film Festival, although Pasolini later regretted his association with them, because the many softcore imitations of the films made him uncomfortable about their success.

His final work, Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), exceeded what most viewers could accept at the time in its explicit scenes of intensely sadistic violence. A satire on Fascism - Salò being the name of the Fascist ‘republic’ Mussolini set up in northern Italy in a desperate attempt to cling to power - it is based on the novel 120 Days of Sodom by Marquis de Sade, and is considered Pasolini's most controversial film.

Willem Dafoe starred as Pasolini in the 2014 film about his life directed by Abel Ferrara
Willem Dafoe starred as Pasolini in the 2014
film about his life directed by Abel Ferrara
Despite evidence that more than one person was involved, only Giuseppe (Pino) Pelosi, the young man he supposedly picked up, was convicted of his murder. Pelosi was caught after police stopped him as he sped from the scene in Pasolini’s Alfa Romeo.

The autopsy indicated that the director had been run over by the car on the beach as Ostia, having first been severely beaten with blunt instruments. Pelosi confessed his guilt, claiming he attacked the director after refusing to be subjected to a particularly violent sexual act.

The verdict of the 1976 court hearing was that Pelosi “and unknown others” were guilty of the crime, although the “unknown others” did not appear in the wording when that verdict went to appeal.

Speculation about alternative motives began almost immediately and intensified when, 29 years later, Pelosi retracted his confession. He said he had made it under the threat of violence to his family and claimed that the crime had been committed by three people regularly seen at the Tiburtina branch of the neo-fascist party Movimento Sociale Italiano (Italian Social Movement).

The conspiracy theorists discussed extortion following the theft of a number of reels of film from Salò as one explanation, while others suspected a political motive.

Franca Rame, who married the playwright Dario Fo and became a political activist
Franca Rame, who married the playwright
Dario Fo and became a political activist
In his columns in the Corriere della Sera, long before the Tangentopoli enquiry led to the collapse of Italy’s then deeply-corrupt political establishment, Pasolini said that the leadership of the ruling Christian Democratic party should stand trial, not only for corruption and links with the Mafia, but for association with neo-fascist terrorism, such as the bombing of trains and a demonstration in Milan.

Also, at the time of his death, Pasolini was working on a novel, Petrolio, that was clearly based on the mysterious death of Enrico Mattei, the former president of the state oil company ENI, which suggested that the scandal went to the heart of power via the involvement of the illegal masonic lodge Propaganda Due.

Attacks on left-wing activists were relatively common in the 1970s. For example, Franca Rame, the actress wife of the playwright Dario Fo and a prominent member of the Italian Communist Party, was kidnapped and raped by a group of neo-Fascists in 1973.

However, though the Pasolini case was reopened in 2005, no new conclusions were reached.

In 2014 the director Abel Ferrara made a biopic about Pasolini, with Willem Dafoe in the lead role, which was selected to compete for the Golden Lion at the 71st Venice International Film Festival.

The ruins of the Roman city of Ostia Antica are better  preserved than Pompei yet are much less well known
The ruins of the Roman city of Ostia Antica are better
preserved than Pompei yet are much less well known
Travel tip:

The seaside resort of Ostia, where Pasolini’s life ended so tragically, lies 30km (19 miles) to the southwest of Rome, situated just across the Tiber river from Fiumicino, home of Rome’s largest international airport. It  adjoins the remains of the ancient Roman city of Ostia Antica, a much-better preserved site than volcano-ravaged Pompei occupying around 10,000 square metres, radiating from a mile-long main street.  There are many houses and apartment blocks, plus warehouses and public buildings, and an impressive amphitheatre.. Many Romans spend their summer holidays in the modern town, swelling a population of about 85,000.

The church of Santa Croce and San Rocco, where the funeral for Pier Paolo Pasolina took place in 1975
The church of Santa Croce and San Rocco, where the
funeral for Pier Paolo Pasolina took place in 1975
Travel tip:

Casarsa della Delizia is a town in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, about 40km (25 miles) west of Udine and about 18km (11 miles) from Pordenone. It is today an important agricultural centre, particularly for wine production, and an important rail hub. Until the end of the Cold War saw numbers reduced, it hosted a large number of Italian military personnel. Pasolini’s funeral took place in the parish church of Santa Croce and San Rocco, before his body was buried in the municipal emetery. The church of Santa Croce and San Rocci contains a cycle of 16th century frescoes by Pomponio Amalteo or by Pordenone.

More reading:

What made Francesco Rosi one of Italy's most influential film-makers

Why the death of Enrico Mattei remains an unsolved mystery

Laura Betti, the actress and singer who became Pasolini's companion

Also on this day:

1696: The birth of painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

1827: The death of scientist Alessandro Volta

1834: The birth of 19th century opera star Marietta Piccolomini

Selected books:

Stories from the City of God: Sketches and Chronicles of Rome 1950-1966, by Pier Paolo Pasolini

A Violent Life (novel), by Pier Paolo Pasolini

(Picture credits: plaque by Renaud Camus; Ostia Antica street by Camelia.boban; church by Intoinside)

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