Italian lifestyle and fashion: Ode to Italy’s fashionable silent film divas

Jan 19, 2020 217

Silent films can be an acquired taste. Melodramatic plots and the absence of synchronized sound are not to everyone’s liking, but those aren’t good enough reasons to dismiss the genre as archaic or tedious. There’s much more to these films than meets the eye, including the story of the Italian divas, Lyda Borelli first among them, who defined the art form. Borelli put her own imprint on Italian silent films and helped to raise their stature in surprisingly modern ways. She used the films to build her own celebrity status, and in the process, set fashion trends in motion, much as stars do today.

The background: Italy’s burgeoning silent film industry

The silent film industry was big business for Italy before World War I. The films were widely circulated abroad and popular in Europe, the Americas, and even Asia. In his book A History of Italian Cinema (Bloomsbury, 2009), the late Peter Bondanella notes that in the years between the birth of the cinema in Italy and 1930, nearly 10,000 Italian silent films of various lengths were made, far more than in any subsequent era, including the postwar years (1945 to 1959), when Italy produced approximately 1,500 films, including the works of legendary Italian directors Rossellini, Visconti, Antonioni, Fellini, and others. 

From the 1910s on, people had become regular moviegoers. These were heady days of innovation; the public was primed to be wowed – and entertained. The automobile, electricity, chemicals and the airplane had all emerged in most Western countries at the same time. The cinema was also in the mix, becoming the first form of industrialized mass entertainment.

Intellectuals seized upon cinema’s potential. Italy’s avant-garde Futurists wrote a manifesto on cinema in 1916 recognizing it as a new art form, distinct from old standards. Many Italian Itinerary greats gave the fledgling medium respectability: the Italian writer and poet Gabriele D’Annunzio wrote the intertitles for the 1914 epic silent film based on the story of Cabiria; and in 1915, Luigi Pirandello wrote Shoot! (in Italian, Si gira: Quaderni di Serafino Gubbio), a novel about a movie camera operator. Even composers got on board. For instance, Piero Mascagni, the composer of Cavalleria Rusticana wrote the musical score accompaniment (delivered live, of course) for Rapsodia Satanica, the Italian silent film gem starring Borelli. Bondanella notes that some established theatrical actors at first snubbed the new medium “but that simply made more room for actors who were willing to make the bold switch.” Diva Borelli was one of them. She was already an admired theatrical star before she turned to cinema.

Hail to the Italian “divahood”

The term diva was first coined to refer to A-list opera sopranos but soon became an identifier for the femme fatales in the early silent films of Italy. Lyda Borelli (1894-1959) was part of a triumvirate of divas that also included Francesca Bertini (1892-1985) and Pina Menichelli (1891-1981). Each woman’s persona and acting style was delightfully distinct from the other's. Bertini, for example, was known to be less histrionic than Borelli in her gestures and more measured; Menichelli, in the words of Eugenia Paulicelli, CUNY Italian professor, fashion and film scholar, and author of Italian Style: Fashion & Film from Early Cinema to the Digital Age (Bloomsbury 2016) was the “sex symbol” of the three, remembered for her “power of seduction and femininity in sinister and almost diabolic form.”

That said, Borelli set the course for “divahood” and became an influential trendsetter. Working class women, in particular, were great devotees of silent films. They imagined themselves in the elegant attire that paraded before their eyes. Fashion mattered for Borelli, and she used it brilliantly to add to her personal allure and create context for her characters. She was a follower of the couture of her time and devotee of the fashions of Paul Poiret and Mariano Fortuny. Borelli’s fashion wardrobe extended to accessories such as gauzy veils and shawls that she used to drape and undrape, to veil and unveil, her characters, helping her to punctuate melodramatic storylines and make them unforgettable.

Borelli made her silent film debut in Ma l’amore mio non muore (Love Everlasting) in 1913, but her most her most consequential film role was as Alba d’Oltrevita in Rapsodia satanica (Satanic Rhapsody) directed by Nino Oxilia in 1915 and released in 1917. In this Faustian-inspired tale, an elderly Alba makes a bargain with the devil to regain her youth. He grants her wish on the condition that she must never love again. Alba is dramatically transformed to her beautiful former self in a series of dazzling stage and costume changes. She is soon courted by two brothers, one of whom falls madly, and fatally, in love with her. She rejects this brother’s love but not the other’s, prompting the forsaken brother to kill himself. The spell is broken, and Alba turns ethereal, enveloped in yards of gauzy, undulating veils, from which her true elderly self re-emerges.

Marketing, early 20th century-style

Borelli achieved great success with this film role. But she had been effectively building her image for some time by using the era’s media and media distribution channels. For instance, Giorgio Bertellini, University of Michigan professor of film and media history, in his article "Cinema and Photography, and Vice Versa," (published in Italian Silent Cinema: A Reader, University of Indiana Press, 2013), said Borelli had come into the public eye after winning a national contest for Italy’s most beautiful woman. In 1908, an Italian publication had published a one-page article on her, including a large, professionally taken photograph with some accompanying text. The photograph, said Bertini, was one of many future photographs that “continuously sustained her performative glamour.”

The film scholar Ivo Blom, in his article “Diva Intermedial: Lyda Borelli between Art, Photography, Theatre and Cinema” (published in Performing New Media, 1890-1915, Indiana Press, 2014) points to how the four media forms converged to propel an actress such as Borelli to celebrity status. Case in point: In 1911, a painting of Borelli by the renowned Milanese portraitist Cesare Tallone that became a sensation and set off a stream of merchandising techniques that enhanced Borelli’s image.

Blom called the painting “larger than life,” a 248 cm x 112 cm (approximately 8 ft x 4 ft) portrait. Borelli stuck a beckoning pose, wearing the same gown she had worn in the theater production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. The painting would then be photographed by Milan’s renowned studio photographer Emilio Sommariva (essentially the era’s photographer to the stars – from nobility, to the bourgeoise, to actors of the stage and screen) and inspire a series of photographic postcards of Borelli that were the rage among moviegoers, fans, and potential fans. And that’s not all. Close-ups of Borelli might have been popularized in posters, brochures and illustrated articles in magazines, all part of a well-oiled publicity machine that foreshadowed our own modern-day merchandising of film, fashion, and celebrities.

Borelli had developed a cult-like following of young women who dyed their hair to match the blonde diva’s shade, followed her fashion cues, and slimmed down so they could replicate her almost serpentine poses in her films. A term was coined to describe these young women – le borelline. Parallels to Twiggy mania in the mid-1960s? Imagine what would have developed if Borelli had had social media in her media arsenal. 

The end of the silent film era

In the years following World War I, Italian films were eclipsed by Hollywood and its glamorous stars. America became the driving force of the industry. Sadly, Italy’s divas withdrew from the film scene. But luckily for us, we can still revel in their dramatic roles – there’s nothing archaic or tedious about the emotions they were able to evoke, or the fame Borelli was able to secure.

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