Hollywood is back on the Tiber. Business is booming at Rome's Cinecittà Studios, founded by Mussolini in 1937. At the start of this year Sam Mendes began shooting Spectre, the new Bond movie, at these studious and elsewhere in Rome, where Daniel Craig's sharp suits, sunglasses and fast cars fit in a treat with the Italian aesthetic. The remake of Ben-Hur, starring Jack Huston and Morgan Freeman, and Ben Stiller's Zoolander 2, are also being shot here, and it's clear that Italian tax breaks for film companies are doing the trick.
Several film sets are now open to visitors and a new permanent exhibition, "Cinecittà Si Mostra" (Cinecittà Shows Off), opened in January. I've brought my sons, Jack and Gabriel (aged eight and nine) to have a look. We're staying on Via Margutta, which became an important centre of dubbing during the fascist era: Mussolini didn't want people watching subtitled films, preferring to promote the Italian language. Fellini lived here, as did the journalist played by Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday.
We've rented an apartment owned by Patrizia Ruspoli, once married to the film director Eriprando Visconti (nephew of the more famous Luchino). In the morning, I open the heavy curtains and shutters and light spills in. The buildings outside turn gold in the sunlight; in the shadows they are pale rust. They line a narrow cobbled lane that's as quiet as a village street, yet is two minutes' walk from Piazza del Popolo.
We start the day with a cinematic tour led by Barbara Lessona, an aristocrat who knows everyone. Her great-grandfather was responsible for building the beautiful artists' studios that line part of Via Margutta. And her grandmother ran the Caffè degli Artisti on Via Margutta in the 1950s. "Everyone came," she says. "Errol Flynn, Ursula Andress, Gregory Peck."
The Roman Holiday apartment, a few doors down from ours is our first stop. I peer into a courtyard where ivy spills like a waterfall. The porter sits in his office surrounded by photos of Audrey Hepburn. A little further along, on Piazza di Spagna, Barbara shows me a designer atelier of André Laug, who used to dress Hepburn. Standing in the polished rooms, the world of Fellini doesn't seem so far away.
The next day, we head out to Cinecittà in the south of Rome. It's a vast site with its own Metro stop and is populated by oddments left over from sets: Egyptian statuary, an oversized rocking horse, a half-head that emerged from a Venetian lagoon in Fellini's Casanova. The studios were a hothouse of Italian film until the Second World War, when they were used as a hospital and refugee camp. In the 1950s, Hollywood arrived, its film-makers drawn by the lower costs as well as by Italy's legendary beauty and unique light.
We see where Fellini recreated Via Veneto for La Dolce Vita and visit the dilapidated houses built for Scorsese's Gangs of New York. Then we wander around the Temple of Jerusalem of Christ the Lord (out next year), rapping the fibreglass steps with our knuckles. Next, we're in 15th-century Florence, on a set used for Romeo and Juliet, starring Damian Lewis. Most spectacular is our next stop, the Ancient Rome set used for the epic HBO/BBC co-production Rome. The broken columns and fragments of the real Roman Forum lie a few miles away, but here we walk amid intact buildings as they would have been, painted in authentic, lipstick-bright colours. The set's main drag, the Via Sacra, uses boulders cast from the Appian Way, Rome's best-preserved Ancient Roman road.
On Sundays, Cinecittà offers workshops for children, and Gabriel makes a mask based on the Casanova half-head while Jack is entranced by the flickering films of the permanent Fellini exhibition, and particularly likes some of the director's raucous, vividly drawn cartoons. The finale, the new Cinecittà Shows Off exhibition, offers a sweeping, multimedia view of the studio's history, from the galloping chariot races of the original Ben-Hur to the sunbathed menace of the spaghetti western. We try hands-on exhibits and watch, mesmerised, as a film shows how a latex mask is built up on someone's face. The visit ends on a high, with the chance to mess around inside the life-size American submarine interior used for U-571 starring Matthew McConaughey.
"We want to share the greatness of this place and the importance of our work with thousands of people around the world," says Giuseppe Basso, the studios' director. Cinecittà's 1930s factory buildings, dilapidated and splendid, provide an insight not only into a world of make-believe, but into the psyche of a nation. Sumptuous, elegant sets supported by precarious-looking scaffolding? It feels like a metaphor for modern Italy.
Rome Fiumicino and Ciampino are served by Alitalia, BA, easyJet, Jet2, Monarch, Norwegian and Ryanair.
Cinecittà Si Mostra (cinecittasimostra .it) 9.30am to 7pm daily; €20. Rome tours by Barbara Lessona (barbaraless ona.com) cost from €300 per half day.
Stay in a former artists' studio at Rome Glamour Studios (marguttaglamour studios.com; from €150) or Margutta 54 (romeluxurysuites.com; €250).
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