Italian silent film divas in their photographic postcards

Esme Garlake

Many ordinary women saw Italian silent film divas as influences on daily dress and behaviour; much of this came from the consumption of photographic postcards, nowadays still avidly collected

Italian silent film divas were the first modern divas. Dramatic, mythologised, hyper-sensualised, and shrouded in a thrilling sense of danger, these original divas graced international cinema screens for the first two decades of the twentieth century. Even today, when we watch their silent films, their dramatic gestures still jolt and flicker across the screen, as if we are witnessing an uncontrollable force seize their bodies and minds. Although Italian silent film divas were cinematically significant, they also hold particular photographic significance at a time when the picture postcard (and photography itself) was in its youth. Indeed, even as moving cinematic images, the Italian silent film divas embraced the stillness and pauses which simultaneously belonged to the realm of photography. Dario Reteuna characterises this intersection as “paper cinema” (cinema di carta).

The term “paper cinema” is not simply an intellectual comment on the aesthetics of Italian silent film divas; it also helps to remind us that photographic postcards allowed ordinary Italians at the time to possess a souvenir – and physical fragment – of the cinematic experience, in all its modernity and glamour. Photographic postcards of Italian silent film divas were mass produced throughout the 1910s and 1920s, and were bought, sent and received by ordinary people across the Italian peninsular and beyond.

Italia Almirante Manzini
Unknown photographer, Italia Almirante Manzini (1890/1941), photographic cardboard, private collection.

If visuality defined Italian silent film divas on-screen, then photography did this off-screen. The photograph of Italian silent film diva Italia Almirante Manzini contains all the drama and glamour of the diva film genre: her doe-eyed expression, beauty spot and luxurious white furs exude a sense of mystery and allure. There is something almost camp about the photograph, in its unapologetic flamboyance, as if an early predecessor of later gay icons such as Dolly Parton or Shirley Bassey. In another postcard, Francesca Bertini holds a pipe and casts a sultry glance to her side from underneath her hat. She is certainly glamourous, but also presents an air of mystery typical of the Italian silent film divas.

Francesca Bertini
Unknown photographer, Francesca Bertini (1892/1985), photographic cardboard, private collection.

In many of the photographic postcards, the Italian silent film divas are simultaneously other-worldly and modern. Pina Menichelli tends to epitomise these blurred timelines: on one postcard, she stands with her hands in her trouser pockets and gazes firmly out towards the viewer (trousers worn by women were bold and outrageous at the time). In another, her curly hair and dark eye shadow seems closer to the fashion of the 1970s than it does to the 1910s. And it is not only Pina Menichelli’s appearance which was markedly modern at the time: her life – in reality and in the characters she played on-screen – was representative of increasing (although by no means complete) female liberation in early twentieth-century Italy. Pina Menichelli was an openly divorced single mother, who played overtly sensual female characters who smoked, deceived, flirted, and obsessed over their own image. Each photographic postcard of Pina Menichelli is a token of this modernity which, crucially, could be owned and displayed by ordinary Italians who were seeking to possess – and make sense of – the modern world of technology and visuality. This sense of ownership remains visible through the personalised messages and postal markings on the postcards, making them unique missives among a history of mass production.

Many ordinary Italian women saw Italian silent film divas as influences on daily dress and behaviour; much of this came from the consumption of such photographic images in postcards and magazines. This dynamic seems to echo (and exemplify) contemporary artist Olafur Eliasson’s interest in ‘how culture actually creates the world’ [here is a link to our interview with the artist. Ed]. At the peak of her acting career during the 1910s, Lyda Borelli was so influential that the verb ‘borelleggiare’ was coined to describe how Italian women tried to dress, pose and move like her. Like most Italian silent film divas, Lyda Borelli had started her acting career in the theatre and then, as cinema became ever popular, moved into the realm of silent films. Opera singer, stage and cinema actress Lina Cavalieri was at one point the most photographed star in the world; a predecessor of the modern celebrity, who is constantly defined and marketed through photographic images. In both cases, women are defined by their image. It is through this that they assume a divine, mythologised status, and yet it is precisely this idolisation that transforms them into an aspirational figure; into an ideal of a modern woman that many ordinary women aspire to be.

Lydia Borelli
Unknown photographer, Lydia Borelli (1887/1959), photographic cardboard, private collection.

The ephemeral nature of photographic postcards means that the majority will have been thrown away, lost in attics or discarded over the years. But there remains a world of postcard collectors, each with their own niche and interests. It is an informal world of exchange, with postcards being bought and traded in markets and – nowadays – websites, and most collections remain in private. Each postcard cost a mere average of between 5-10 euros, and yet the value of these postcards is immeasurable aesthetically, historically and culturally. Perhaps more collectors will come out of the shadows at some point, but only when postcards come to be recognised for the profoundly layered and valuable historical sources that they are.

October 14, 2021