In Italian, La Dolce Vita means a life of pleasure and simple luxury; it’s about enjoying the good things and about really indulging in the things you love. It was a classic movie that introduced the world to the uniqueness of the Italian lifestyle, Vespa and all. (picture by Jann Huizenga)
Italians know the importance of not taking things too seriously and this includes not coming on time to appointments. It’s the right attitude in this giant, bustling city where taking any kind of transportation takes hours, except, of course, if you are on a Vespa scooter.
Nicola Mammolenti, marketing and web manager at Vespa and bike rental company Bici & Baci zooms through the Rome traffic like there is no tomorrow and his old vintage model is holding up beautifully. The company is not just a rental agency, he explains, it’s a place where everyone is a fervent Vespa fan, to the point that they set up their own little museum in the basement of one of the shops. “Some of these models we got from the garbage,” he smiles. “Here, they got a second life.”
Adored by Italians ever since it made its public debut at the 1946 Milan design fair, the little scooter immediately became one of the symbols of the good life in Rome. It was cheap and reliable, women could ride it in skirts, and its concealed engine kept oil, grease and dirt from chic Italian clothes. More than this, the Vespa was, and still is, fun.
It was Hollywood that made the little scooter an international icon. In the fifties and sixties, the Americans discovered that is was much cheaper to shoot their movies in Italy. Soon Rome became the place to be for international stars, famous singers, actors, emerging stars, starlets, princes, princesses and billionaires.
The Vespa’s first appearance on the big international movie screen was in Roman Holiday, a 1953 romantic comedy starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. The glamorous Hollywood couple rode carefree around Rome on one of the scooters, aimlessly and stylishly. Audiences wanted to do the same and according to some figures the movie generated 100,000 Vespa sales.
La Dolce Vita
But the scooter was just one object in the greater scheme of things. The great Federico Fellini, Italy’s most famous movie director, made the Italian way of life, Vespa and all, world famous with his movie La Dolce Vita. His drama gave a glimpse into café society during the post war period in Italy. With its extravagant costumes and easy going lack of structure, the film truly represented what was meant by the sweet life.
The story was simple enough. It followed Marcello Rubini, a journalist writing for gossip magazines, over seven days and nights on his journey through Rome in a fruitless search for love and happiness.
When Federico Fellini shot his film in the Via Veneto, the road where all the night clubs and side walk cafes were located, he created a new era in world cinema and in fashion. Because of his movie, Italian nights became the symbol of the sweet and lazy way of life, made up of fashion and gossip, paparazzi and tabloid scandal, relationships and forbidden love.
Hollywood on the Tiber
Most of the productions of Hollywood on the Tiber, as the Italian movie productions were called, took place at Europe’s biggest movie studios, Cinecittà. It was populated by stars and divas, on Vespas of course. Even after the sixties, Rome never stopped being popular as an alternative Hollywood. In 2015, Sam Mendes shot Bond movie Spectre at these studios and elsewhere in Rome. Daniel Craig's sharp suits, sunglasses and fast cars fit in perfectly with the Italian aesthetic.
Cinecittà is open to the public and worth a visit if you like cinema. There is a museum featuring a curved Chroma screen showing excerpts from Roman Holiday, Ben Hur, and of course, La Dolce Vita. But what is most amazing at Cinecittà, is the tour of the movie sets. Apart from seeing the studio that was once transformed into Rome’s nightlife avenue, visitors can wander around the Temple of Jerusalem and 15th-century Florence, on a set used for Romeo and Juliet, starring Damian Lewis. Most spectacular is the Ancient Rome set used for the epic HBO/BBC co-production Rome, which feature the intact buildings as they would have been, painted in authentic colors.
Jumping in the Trevi Fountain
Even now, the idea of the sweet life is chained to Rome. The Trevi fountain, as the site of one particular famous scene in Fellini’s movie, attracts crowds every night, when it lights up and rekindles the magical atmosphere of the past. “People try to jump into the water now and then, imitating the movie,” says Luciana Squadrilli, who has lived in Rome for many years and knows what life here is like. Interesting, she says, with lots of great food.
Despite a recent economic crisis, the Italians never lost their ability to kick back and relax, taking a slow, evening walk around, enjoying a lavishly long lunch and plenty of coffee breaks, that much is clear. Coffee is what we are having at the end of the Vespa Italian experience, a tiny sip of it. We are standing at a coffee bar, having, what Mammolenti calls “The best coffee in Italy.” Just going to the Pantheon, which looms on the square behind us, and listening to someone reciting a history lesson has become old fashioned, he says. “If you want to know all those facts, you can stay at home and read them on the internet. When you come to Rome, you need to live the life.”