Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #3

Re: The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)

The large hats of the Pharisees that you spend so much time speculating about in your review of Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew have a simple explanation. They are directly inspired by the way the Pharisees and members of the Sanhedrin are depicted in the frescos of the painter Piero Della Francesca. In fact, the costume designer of the film, the great Danilo Donati, based all of his costume designs for the film not on historically accurate research, but on the way this period was depicted in Italian Renaissance painting of the 1400s. If you look at the film and then study the paintings of Piero Della Francesca, Masacio, Uccello etc. you will find everything there.

For the most famous, and striking example is the huge hats of the Pharisees, please see the frescos by Piero, The Story of the True Cross, which are in Arrezzo, Tuscany, where the Pharisees wear these huge hats. But there are many more examples. Those odd, plate-like helmets that the Romans wear are also found in the Piero Della Francesca frescos. Piero didn’t know what Romans and Pharisees really looked like — so he used his imagination — and it is from Piero’s fantasy that Pasolini and Donati drew their inspiration.

Watch the film — Herod’s costume — the three wisemen — Salome’s costume — the rich man who won’t give up his wealth — all these costume designs come from Italian painting of the 1400s. All of this adds another interesting layer to the meaning of the film. Pasolini wasn’t interested in historical accuracy — but rather in the relevance of this great tale through history. I hope this helps clarify your speculation about why Pasolini chose to use those huge hats!

Thanks for writing. You make a fascinating point. I certainly knew Pasolini wasn’t going for historical accuracy (and said so specifically in connection with the Pharisees’ headgear), but I didn’t know he got those hats from anywhere in particular either. I read dozens of reviews and essays of The Gospel According to St. Matthew before writing my review, and not one mentioned this cultural background, but it makes perfect sense and is obviously right, based on the Piero works available online.

In any case, it seems to me that at least some of what I wrote about the Pharisees’ headgear is still valid. For example, the clear connection of some of the hats to bishops’ mitres would surely be just as obvious and intentional in 15th century Italian painting as it seems in Pasolini’s film.

In the meantime, since you mention Salome’s costume in this connection also, I don’t suppose the history of Italian art offers any insight into why Pasolini’s Salome is depicted as a child playing jacks, or why she performs such a low-key dance? It is hard to imagine that girl and that dance inspiring that promise from Herod.

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