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Maina and Zecca's “Turn on the red light: notes on the birth of Italian pornography” (2021)

“Turn on the red light: notes on the birth of Italian pornography”

[S]ince the beginning of the 1960s, the Italian media landscape had been characterized by a gradual opening towards nudity and eroticism, especially in film and in the popular press. Following the unexpected 1959 box-office success of European Nights [Europa di notte] by Alessandro Blasetti, the decade started with a proliferation of sexy pseudo-documentaries and mondo movies that boldly introduced the depiction of naked (female) bodies and (mildly) risqué situations for the first time on Italian screens, being at least in part legitimized by the fact that they presented themselves as serious examples of ethnographic reportage from other, distant cultures and societies.

[Ortoleva] considers the period between the late 1950s – when the first signs of a different attitude towards sex and nudity came from Northern Europe and the USA – and the mid 1970s – when ‘adult movie theatres began to appear in almost all European countries’ (2009, 165) – as a crucial turning point in the history of Western adult entertainment. ‘After the 1970s’, Ortoleva continues, ‘any idea of returning to anti-pornographic traditional rules was impossible’ (2009, 165–166). In this kind of context, the years around 1975 should therefore be seen as the chronological end-point of an irreversible cultural rupture. However, if we look at the Italian scenario more closely, we can see that the process of pornographic (re)conversion of media forms and content occurring in those decisive years was actually taking place in anything but a homogeneous and generalized way

In Italy (as in other European countries), the first sector of the cultural industry to allow the representation of explicit sex certainly was the press, in which hardcore images were already widely available a few years earlier than they were in Italian cinema. This moderately greater tolerance was allowed by Article 21 of the Costituzione Italiana [Italian Constitution], which guarantees freedom of the press and therefore forbids any kind of preventive censorship. Thanks to this constitutional principle, all printed materials – including those featuring adult content – could be placed on the market without preventive restrictions, and no state institution could impede their distribution. It was only after their release on newsstands that public prosecutors could exert their repressive action against those publications, by issuing a seizure warrant for the unsold copies, according to Article 528 of the Codice Penale [Criminal Code] – which defines the crime of ‘obscenity’.

In this extremely competitive market, some publications immediately raised the stakes in their representations of sex: by the early 1970s, several ‘cheap’ erotic magazines had crossed over from the classic pseudo-glossy photoshoots of naked women and started to show the first gynaecological details. In 1971, the most famous of these publications, Le Ore, was already featuring models of both genders engaged in softcore performances. The weekly magazine OS somewhat ‘made the leap’ around 1972, by showing hardcore scenes (with erect male organs, non-simulated oral sex, and genital contact) only concealed by a microscopic black strip in strategic places. The controversy regarding which of these magazines was actually the first to show hardcore materials is impossible to solve and, frankly, not really that interesting. However, the publisher Luciano Mantelli, interviewed by Loretta Napoleoni (2008), states that OS was the first; while according to Fabrizio Zanoni (2001), editor of the porn critique magazine Video Impulse, this record goes to Le Ore. Conversely, in his reconstruction of the history of the Italian adult press, Gianni Passavini writes that the first ‘real’ hardcore images to appear on the Italian market – without black strips or any concealment technique whatsoever – were published in 1975 (15 May issue) by the magazine OV, followed shortly after by another magazine, E7 (Passavini 2016, 195–198).

This slapdash production process obviously affected the overall quality of the late 1970s Italian adult magazines, and heavily influenced their representational and typological features.

[T]he early Italian adult press did not implement the segmentation of the target audience typical of a ‘mature’ and completely developed pornographic industry. Artefacts such as those discussed here made absolutely no difference between sexual orientations, types of practices, or specific fetishes.

It looks as though the Italian specialized publishers of the late 1970s were to some extent guided by production strategies based on improvisation, motivated by the urgent need to capitalize as quickly as possible on a (relatively unexplored) sector that was promising but at the same time very unstable – mainly because it was constantly under threat of seizures and court orders – and completely lacking precise and shared marketing rules.

Even though the very same Article 21 affirms ‘the right to freely manifest one’s own thought with spoken words, written texts and any other means of communication’ (our italics), cinema in Italy was traditionally (and structurally) subjected to government censorship. Film censorship was in fact established by a 1914 Law during the Giolitti Era, reinforced during Fascism and reconfirmed after the birth of the Italian Republic by the first Christian Democrat government, with Law no. 958 of 29 December 1949 (the so-called Andreotti Law).

The Italian film industry was therefore subjected to both preventive censorship (by the Ministry) and repressive censorship (by the judiciary). However, as we discussed at the beginning of this article, both of these forms of censorship started to progressively lose power from the second half of the 1960s, under the pressure of the processes of cultural and political modernization that characterized the Italian society of the time. On the one hand, the action of the judiciary began to lose grasp after the renowned court case involving Pasolini’s The Decameron [Il Decameron] (1971): accused of obscenity for its highly erotic content, the film was seized by the public prosecutors, but then subsequently cleared by an Italian court, therefore setting a precedent for a more liberal interpretation of the Criminal Code with regard to the cinematic representation of sex (Manzoli 2012, 181–182; Maina and Zecca 2020, 103–105). On the other, preventive censorship became (at least in part) less effective after the 1962 reform of censorship (Law no. 121 of 21 April), which introduced a new rating category, VM18 (no admittance to persons under 18 years of age). This category was initially used by censorship committees to label movies with violent content (such as spaghetti western films, for instance), but since the late 1960s it has been primarily employed to regulate the circulation of films deemed problematic for their sexual content (such as The Decameron).

The birth of Italian pornographic cinema can in fact be traced back to at least the first half of the 1970s, when a number of producers started to create hardcore versions of their erotic movies, destined to be exported illegally to more liberal markets, such as France, Germany, and the Netherlands. In particular, Italian producers were encouraged towards this practice by the growing demand for pornographic movies coming especially from French distributors, as the country had decriminalized hardcore cinema in 1975 – thanks to the controversial ‘Loi X’ [X Law] (Bier 2000). Interviewed in 1999, the director – and generally acknowledged ‘father’ of Italian porn – Aristide Massaccesi (aka Joe D’Amato) recalled: ‘During that period we had French distributors and they asked to put harder material into our films. So, if a movie was originally softcore, they asked us to add hardcore’.24 Therefore, it was mainly to meet the demands of the French market that Italian producers started to ‘fill’ certain erotic movies with hardcore inserts, for the most part expressly shot ‘from scratch’ and with actors who were not in the original cast.

Due to the particular nature of this production, very few primary and secondary sources are available in order to reconstruct the economic and social history of these hardcore export versions in more details.

[S]everal Italian film companies decided to ‘invest’ in the representation of sex (and violence) in the hope of reviving cinema attendance, so that the erotic became a major genre of 1970s popular Italian cinema: for instance, in 1976 alone, out of 237 movies produced in the country (Corsi 2001, 99), at least a hundred were ascribable to the erotic genre.

Law no. 355 of 17 July 1975 declared that the mere fact of displaying and selling periodicals received from authorized publishers and distributors did not constitute a crime, finally freeing newsagents from possible legal repercussions related to the sale of adult materials.

The dramatic crisis that hit the exhibition sector during the 1970s30 in fact forced several owners to ‘convert’ their venues into adult movie theatres in order to survive.

According to news reports of the time, the first hardcore images appeared on Italian screens on 14 April 1978: it was a fleeting blow job scene included in the Danish movie Rosa Bon fiore del sesso [I tyreus tegn – In het teken van de Stier / Rosa Bon Bon the Sex Flower] (Werner Hedman, 1975), which either surprisingly escaped the censors’ scissors or was (most likely) ‘informally’ re-introduced by the Italian distributors (Grattarola and Napoli 2003a, 51).

[T]he theatrical era of Italian porn was not to last long. Around the mid-1980s, in fact, the production and distribution of pornographic videos begun to conquer an increasingly significant market share, slowly and progressively forcing movie theatres to close their doors or to convert to VHS (and then DVD) screening (Grattarola and Napoli 2003b, 23).

[F]urther research should take into account the relations between the two sectors, the circulation of performers (or even stars) and crews from one field to another, and the possible existence of shared production practices.

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