Caligula Revealed

Article by Thomas Negovan

Mario Tursi’s on-set photographs take us inside the filming of a legendary movie.

The Los Angeles Art Show is one of the world’s leading fine art events. This year’s show, held in early February, featured contemporary work exhibited by more than 120 galleries from 23 countries.

Penthouse was part of the action, helping celebrate the 40th anniversary of the legendary feature film Caligula with Caligula Revealed — never-before-seen photographs shot on set and behind the scenes by one of cinema’s greatest film documentarians, Italian photographer Mario Tursi.

When Penthouse founder Bob Guccione was producing Caligula, he spared no expense in hiring top creative talents to write, direct, shoot, costume, and set-design this epic, sexually daring film. And when it came to documenting the production itself, he turned to a master photographer.

Mario Tursi was born in Rome in 1929. Following an apprenticeship as a street photographer, he took a job as an official photographer for the Vatican while still a teenager. At 19, he was hired as a photojournalist for Italy’s most prominent agency, VEDO. Rising to the top of VEDO by age 27, Tursi eventually turned to pursuing his deepest passion: film-set photography.

Tursi became the production photographer of choice for numerous celebrated directors of the sixties, seventies, and eighties. Roman Polanski, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Lina Wertmüller, and Luchino Visconti all hired this artist with a camera to document their movie shoots.

In 1989, Tursi won the Grand Prize for Cinematic Photography at the Cannes Film Festival for documenting the filming of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

Before retiring in 2002, six years prior to his death, Tursi documented more than 40 films, raising his camera a final time as an on-set photographer during Scorsese’s Gangs of New York.

While documenting the Caligula production in Rome in the late seventies, Tursi shot a remarkable 10,000-plus photographs. He grabbed shots of A-list actors rehearsing and cavorting, the swift building of ambitious, expensive sets, producers worrying over fine details as filming approached, a sea of extras being costumed, and Penthouse Pets being filmed.

Tursi’s extraordinary images help us imagine what it must have been like to participate in the madness and magic of a film that remains one of the most controversial of all time.

Thomas Negovan is an L.A.-based author and archivist tasked with the new edit of “Caligula” and preserving the trove of recently discovered raw footage. Learn more about the 40th anniversary release of “Caligula” at Event photos: Tommy O

More on Caligula Revealed: CaligulaMMXX, Caligula Rediscovered

You can find the Penthouse classic Caligula revealed in any number of ways over the years. Focusing on the art literally taken on set at the time of shooting nevertheless constitutes something unique and special.