Modernissimo Cinema: Bologna’s Liberty style jewel reopens
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Modernissimo Cinema: Bologna’s Liberty style jewel reopens

The cinema’s reopening on November 21 was a journey back in time to when the auditorium in Palazzo Ronzani first opened its doors early last century

Modernissimo Cinema: Bologna’s Liberty style jewel reopens
By Redazione The Plan -

It was a big day for the Modernissimo. It as good as disappeared 15 years ago after the cinema in the heart of Bologna, then known as the Arcobaleno, stopped ushering moviegoers through its doors. It might have been gone but it was never forgotten by the locals (and probably not just them), and today it has reopened in all its newly recovered former glory following a long and ambitious renovation project. To celebrate the new life of the movie theater between Via Rizzoli and Piazza Re Enzo, a series of special events are planned from November 21 through the end of the month, including movie screenings and talks with actors, directors, and stars of the big screen, including Marco Bellocchio, Wes Anderson, Paola Cortellesi, Mario Martone, Alice and Alba Rohrwacher, Giuseppe Tornatore, and many others. The full program is available on the website of Cineteca di Bologna, the firm that put together the program and was also behind the restoration of this Liberty style jewel.

It’s extremely tempting to step inside this modern, comfortable cinema, designed by set designer Giancarlo Basili, and breathe in the atmosphere of the early 20th century – but upgraded with the latest technology.

“In this place, history dialogues with the present and vice versa,” said Cineteca CEO, Gian Luca Farinelli, “while the venue also looks to the future. The canopy roof designed by Mario Nanni will probably be completed by the end of February. This will make the aim of the project even more obvious – that is, to join the Modernissimo to the Via Rizzoli underground pedway. Although it’s located underneath Piazza Maggiore, which means it’s at the same level as the Roman city, it’s very much a part of the present. Where else in the world is there such a beautiful place?


A pedway dedicated to culture

Cinema Modernissimo Bologna. La nuova sala restaurata da Giancarlo Basili ©Lorenzo Burlando, courtesy of Cineteca Bologna

The reopening, which goes against the trend of countless cinema closures over recent years (and not just in Bologna), was announced by an exact reproduction of the poster designed for the original opening in 1915, suggesting that time stopped in that moment or – perhaps – we’ve traveled back 108 years. And stepping inside the Modernissimo today is very much like taking a journey back in time – in particular, because of the work of the restoration’s artistic director Giancarlo Basili, a renowned set designer who, among other things, worked on My Brilliant Friend. Cineteca director Farinelli explained why Basili was chosen for this role instead of an architect:

“The architecture of the Modernissimo was a given. What we needed was an artist who could make us dream that when we step into the Modernissimo, we’re stepping into a kind of cinematic Atlantis. Basili’s work was on two levels: on the one hand, he kept the original features that remained, and, on the other, starting with the few photographs and a lot of drawings of the project from the time, he imagined a place of extraordinary beauty that celebrated cinema while retaining the mood of 100 years ago. Since the 1970s, we’ve witnessed the gradual standardization of cinemas, which nowadays look more or less the same the world over. So, we went in the opposite direction and tried to emphasize the uniqueness of the Modernissimo.”

The Modernissimo, however, will be more than just a cinema. With seating for 350, it will also act as a cultural center for new generations. It will be quite a surprise for people too young to have known the cinema in the past to experience today that sense of stepping into a special world that cinema has always been able to give us. Bologna mayor Matteo Lepore said that rather than just being closely connected to the Via Rizzoli underpass project – so much so that the two together can be seen as a kind of “culture underpass” – the Modernissimo is an integral part of a “culture quadrilateral” in Bologna’s city center, along with various museums, the Salaborsa Library, the future municipal theater, and the immense outdoor cinema held in Piazza Maggiore during summer, which, from next year, will have programming support from the Modernissimo. Outside the historic center, the Renato Zangheri archive is currently nearing completion in the former Giuriolo car park, where it will open next spring, and within around 18 months, the Cineteca archive. This last project is being built to a design by Antonio Iascone & Partners.


Giancarlo Basili’s renovation project

Cinema Modernissimo Bologna Un dettaglio della scala

After the initial survey, planning, demolition of superfluous structures, and consolidation of load-bearing ones, Basili moved on to the renovation phase, unveiling the original splendor of the Modernissimo auditorium after it had been hidden for more than a century. The result has reignited the spirit and atmosphere that moviegoers must have experienced over a hundred years ago, more than living up to expectations.

The process began with a stylistic study of original elements still found Palazzo Ronzani. Next came the involvement of master painter Mario Marsico, who created images of the decorations and “props.” Hidden under the layers of years of modernization, the decorative elements of the auditorium’s ceiling re-emerged. Removing a suspended ceiling revealed the paintings that originally adorned it.

Sourced from the private collections of the Vasio and Andreazza families, period photographs and plans by Gualtiero Pontoni – the architect and set designer responsible for Palazzo Ronzani and its interiors – then made it possible to recreate the designs and materials of the original decorations of the auditorium. This vast but very fragmented collection of information was both a foundation and a challenge for Basili. Basing his designs on the stylistic studies, Basili reinvented the auditorium ceiling by modifying shapes and colors according to various design strategies, including enlarging the details so that audiences can better appreciate the designs at a distance. A good example of this is the series of beautiful peacock feathers. Meanwhile, original ads for Birra Ronzani have merely been touched up.

It’s clear how Pontoni’s plans – which were full of numerical, chromatic, and material information – were a fundamental source of inspiration for the creation of the decorative work, from the treble clef balustrades to the lighting. For the chandeliers, Basili opted for a contemporary reinterpretation of the originals, retaining the octagonal base and tapered drop, as well as the glass bowl as the lower element, contained in a purple glass semi-circle.

It’s impossible to step inside the Modernissimo auditorium and not be struck by the red armchairs in the renovated stalls. Basili redesigned the seats based on a historically appropriate model, redesigning the lines of the armrests and adding a few details, such as the raised M on the backs of the seats that border the stalls. Each seat was then given the name of an important figure from cinema history, which is sewn with gold thread into the backrest in the art deco LHF Gloria font.


Meeting the needs of today’s public

Cinema Modernissimo Bologna Il Caffè Pathè

“Bologna is full of young people and students, and the Modernissimo is an excellent example of bucking a trend,” said Marco Bellocchio, director and president of Cineteca, “especially since it’s doing it in the center of the city. And then we have a very significant program, with both old, legendary, and classic films as well as previews. This is a complete cinema, as it should be to reflect the mission of a film library in a city where cinema has always played an important role. I love concrete things, and this project is exactly that. I often go to the cinema when it’s less busy, but it’s actually better to go when there’s a full audience, so you can experience their reactions and presence.”

You can’t reproduce any of this at home. Still, to meet the new and constantly changing needs of the public, as well as attract people who, especially in recent years, have preferred to stream movies at home, the Modernissimo is offering a different and varied program. A key attraction is the one-hour screenings, 1:00–2:00 p.m., with the option of lunch from the Pathé Café, located near the auditorium entrance. Served in a “CineBox,” there are two lunch options, classic and vegetarian, that can be eaten in the auditorium. Other breakfast and snack options are also available.


The Modernissimo: among the most prestigious cinemas in the world

Cinema Modernissimo Bologna. Dettagli della mostra all'ingresso del nuovo cinema ©Lorenzo Burlando, courtesy of Cineteca Bologna

The Modernissimo can rightfully be included among the most prestigious cinemas in Europe and beyond, holding its own alongside venues like the 1500-seat Majestic Theater in New York, the Louxor in Paris, and the Metro Kino in Vienna.

The headquarters of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) in London also recently underwent an expansion and remodeling project developed by Benedetti Architects, including the creation of a level almost entirely dedicated to education, learning, and training. A new top floor was added by restoring Victorian rooflights and decorative plasterwork, and adding large windows, which has new rooms and a terrace overlooking the church of St. James’s Piccadilly. The 227-seat Princess Anne Theatre is located on the floor below, flanked by a 41-seat cinema and the Kenworthy Gallery exhibition space. A key part of this project was the creation of flexible spaces with the potential for further expansion and adaption to future needs.

>>> Read the editorial by Mónica Ponce De León in THE PLAN 143, “Creating Culture.”


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Location: Bologna, Italy
Project: Giancarlo Basili
Completion: 2023

Individual photo credits are included in each gallery image.

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