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Lettering in cinema

The Italian cinema of the 60s and 70s, in particular, saw the work of painters who have created incredible masterpieces, often entered the collective imagination. In the introduction to the book «Pittori di cinema» by Maurizio Baroni, Luca Barcellona tells his experience as a collector. He also analyzes the imaginative lettering used by painters such as Sandro Symeoni or Enrico De Seta. His story jumps from film to film, showing how the application of painting and calligraphy to lettering in cinema constitutes a fascinating discipline.

A dazzling meeting

Towards the end of the nineties I had a meeting that I would call dazzling: a meeting with Italian cinema. I’d already fortunately abandoned my monomania for hip-hop, and I started to buy and exchange records of music for me absolutely unreleased. It was the music composed for cinema, composed by masters with names such as Trovajoli, Piccioni, Umiliani, Morricone, Bacalov. They called it Lounge music, or easy listening, but I only realized later that it was just jazz, made in an Italian way.

An idealized time

They were beautiful melodies, from those persuasive on which the vocals of Edda DellOrso gave an unmistakably local color, to those pressing and obstinate as in the jazz-funk polizziotteschi by Umberto Lenzi and Fernando Di Leo, set to music by Franco Micalizzi or Stelvio Cipriani. What attracted me was not only the music, but all the imagination that was around it, made of vintage images, instruments, record players, clothes and hairstyles that reminded me of my parents young photos. Maybe we always want what we can not have, how to live in a time that is not ours, and so we idealize it.

Luca Barcellona

In stores you could find Easy Tempo compilations and reissues of records like Svezia inferno e Paradiso and Angeli Bianchi, Angeli neri. With these I made my first discovery: the covers were by Sandro Symeoni, one of the most prolific painters of cinema. There were those women, those dry brushstrokes, but above all there were the letters, the titles made with that same brush that created the paintings. Volume 7 of Easy Tempo, had a sort of calligram with the words Bikini Beat 7 that formed a womans costume: years later I saw the manifesto of Scusi, conosce il sesso? 1968, and I realized that it was probably the same
Symeoni to redo the lettering of the cover.

I started collecting some posters

As it happened to me with other passions, I threw myself headlong into the search for that material. It wasnt very simple: I didnt have Internet yet and finding information required a certain stubbornness, but I eventually discovered a little shop in Milan near Porta Venezia, called Bloodbuster, that is still there but just changed address. For me it was paradise: videotapes of the darkest subgenres, from Italian comedy to Mondo-movies, from snuff to Z series horror, soundtracks of never heard movies, and of course vintage posters. I started collecting movies and posters, what I could afford.

Sandro Symeoni
Mario Caiano, 1976

Some I took directly from the SAC in Milan Central Train Station. One of the first was Milano
, which has been hanging in my bedroom for a long time, with that title squared and brutal traced by buckets and skilful brush strokes. Symeoni painted it, posing for the painting himself: I discovered it by reading the magazine «Amarcord», which talked about B-Movies of all kinds. Symeoni had a column in the same magazine, in which he talked about lettering and about his posters, telling cinema stories related to them. I remember the frustration that he expressed for the rejection of his painting for Il grande cocomero, replaced by a collage of faces and digital characters, brutally photoshopped as was the custom at the time.

Turn off those f*****g computer

I wanted to live on lettering, draw them by hand, even if I didnt know how yet. I often remembered those words of anger towards the foolish marketing choices, who preferred a jumble of photos instead of a wonderful drawing. I‘ve got it as a great injustice. I identified myself in his words, because somehow I was experiencing the same frustration: nobody cared about calligraphy, even though I continued to practice with the nib every day, until late at night. In his words there was what I also wanted to shout to the world, «turn off those f*****g computers and return to workshops with colors and brushes!».

But we were in the middle of a digital boom, PCs were starting to enter everyone’s homes. There was a desire for a new future and there was no place for the old hand-painted posters, and not even for me. In fact, I wanted to do a similar job, but I was definitely late. «Amarcord» also dedicated small format thematic monographs to the posters, mostly Italian horror. There was one called Made in Hell, which I still have, whose cover was incredible. Here were reproduced dozens of beautiful posters, of which I studied greedily especially lettering.

Mario Caiano, 1972
Igor Molino Editore

Lettering in Italian cinema

For me it was all new, even if it was stuff of thirty years before. I even tried to reproduce them in graffiti, first with sprays, rather roughly, years later with the brush. I was trying to replicate those imperfections in the letters, those splits that seemed to be cut with axes. In the paintings of late Symeoni, there is no shadow of a curve, as in his titles for L’occhio nel labirinto, La morte cammina con i tacchi alti, L‘ultima casa a sinistra, Napoli Violenta and Cos‘hai fatto a Solange?

I remember the fonts from 90s that took exactly those shapes, square letters with the holes inside, off axis; I think they came from right there. And again the letters of La dolce vita and Smog, from which I drew inspiration dozens of times for my designs. They were the equivalent of iconic lettering like those of Saul Bass for Vertigo, which seemed carved in wood rather than drawn, considering how raw and square were the letters. I loved also the simple but effective work for of Psycho or The Shining, always by Saul Bass. Sometimes it is enough to tear the capitals, or a perceived flicker in the staggered rods of the contours, to evoke the anxiety generated by the entire movie.

Alfred Hitchcok, 1960
Franco Rossi, 1962

Platea in Piedi

Symeoni was only the first. Over time I delved into the matter and made other discoveries. At a certain point I knew of the existence of three volumes always published by Bolelli during half of the nineties. They were called Platea in Piedi (standing audience) and collected much of the material film of the golden age. The author was a certain Maurizio Baroni, collector of posters. I phoned Bolelli to have them sent to me, grabbing volume 1 and 2 from 1958 to 1978. They were a Bible to be consulted, and they still are now. There was everything: posters, photo envelopes. flans, record covers, sheet music, even the plaques with the words «forbidden to children under 14». For me those books and magazines represented a real sample of letters. You can draw endless ideas from them and you could try to divide them into categories.

The collector Maurizio Baroni

Spectral lettering, the golden age of italian cinema

Those deformed letters of La donna invisibile, Suspiria, Gli occhi freddi della paura took you directly into a hallucinatory dimension. Sometimes they entered and exited a sphere, as in Questo sporco fantastico mondo. The points of the cleaving graces like knives of Lo Sgarro and Gli Arcangeli. A brush that overturns the ends he thick de La banda Casaroli and Salvatore Giuliano. A reminiscent of blood patches that blend together, just like at the scene of a crime. The fantastic tiny with contours broken by Mafioso and the explosive capital letters of II boom with Alberto Sordi. The indentations of Nella stretta morsa del ragno and La cripta e l‘incubo mysteriously manage to live together in the same title in Attila. I remember the capital A as a reminiscent of a character in modern textura.

There are the typical spectral and bloody letters like in Lo spettro by De Seta and Le tre facce della paura, masterpiece of the master Mario Bava, and then again Seddok and Caltiki, a real logo in a horror key. The xylographic forms, typical of wood carving, of La suora giovane and La Guerre est finie, the curves of the low-cut comedies such as Il debito coniugale in which the L is a lucky charm and the U a nice pair of horns. These were their own kind apart, explanatory already from the titles, made of voyeurism prevailing towards teachers and nurses. Give a glimpse at the explicit O in La dottoressa ci sta col colonnello.

Luigi Russo, 1974
Michele Massimo Tarantini, 1980

Illustrate with words

Here in every letter there is a reference to the film or to the meaning. You find an example in comedies as in improbable and ramshackle films. In the poster for Dracula is searching for virgins‘ blood, and…he died of thirst, produced by Andy Warhol, a bat stands on the D while the E bleeds. Porca Società, 1978, had a pink writing edged in black, with a pig embedded in the P and a pig tail in the final A. It was not exactly a calligram like that of Il dio serpente or La ragazza con la pistola, but I was struck by the fact that the letters became an image of themselves and not just words. Years later I delved deeper into the issue, studying calligrams backwards until the first examples of Guillame Apollinaire, dating back to 1918.

I have always been attracted by this concept, illustrating with words and nothing else, exploiting all the semantic potential of lettering. Film painters knew how to do it with incredible mastery. Some years ago I had the fortune to participate to a wonderful event, C‘era una volta a Roma. It was a concert for orchestra with six elements that proposed a selection of themes of soundtracks of the sixties and seventies. I was contacted for the visual animation, and I made dozens and dozens of posters of cinema, by hand, trying to variate the lettering and to identify with one of those masters. It was on that occasion, moving the flat brush soaked in tempera and rewriting the same titles, which I realized why those shapes, those sharp cuts, there was finally entered in repeating their experience in a visceral way.

Pittori di cinema, italian lettering

The last cinema painter: Renato Casaro

It came naturally, a bit for the instrument itself, a bit because it was about painting the titles, not writing them. It was necessary to think as a painter, not as a calligrapher. From that moment I rekindled the fire for that world, I began incessantly collecting vinyl soundtracks, mostly original. I cant explain exactly what I felt when I found Gli indifferenti, with Claudia Cardinale on the cover, La vita agra, with that almost comic treatment that combines painting and photography recreating the metropolitan scenario of a post-boom industrial Milan.

Or when after years of research, I got my hands on Smog first press, which starts with Chet Bakers trumpet; those photos, those titles, that music together… I was probably trying to bring home a fetish from that time I didn’t have. On the contrary, Maurizio thought about the posters, with his endless passion and perseverance of a collectors life. With this book, I hope you will be involved by the same passion for lettering that has overwhelmed me and to rediscover the unique charm of the most beautiful period that Italian cinema has ever known.

The first edition of Pittori di cinema is sold out.
The remaining limited edition copies, in three versions, signed and numbered by the author, are still on sale.

Murizio Baroni has been a great collector and cinema conoisseur. Check his Bio.

Luca Barcellona is a well known italian calligrapher. Check his Bio.

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