Francesca Bertini: Silent Diva, Spectator & her Female Spectators

by: , October 5, 2023

Francesca Bertini—the stage and screen name of Elena Seracini Vitiello—was born in Florence in 1892, though her date of birth is a source of contention, with some critics claiming she was born in 1888 (Bianchi 1969: 10). Her mother, allegedly a female actor, registered her at an orphanage as Elena Taddei. She was raised in Naples from 1894 by Adelina di Venanzio Fratiglioni and Arturo Vitiello, who worked in theatre props, and whose surname Bertini took in 1910.

Bertini began her career working as a theatre actor in Naples at the Teatro Nuovo in 1903 at the age of 11, as one of several Neapolitan-dialect actors under the directorship of Gennaro Pantalena (1848-1915). Her cinema debut occurred in 1907 at the age of 15 in La dea del mare (The Sea Goddess), and in 1909 she performed in Salvatore Di Giacomo’s Assunta Spina (1904) at the Teatro Nuovo with Adelina Magnetti (1882-1963) in the lead role. Bertini would herself go on to perform the role of Assunta and co-direct the screenplay in 1915 with Gustavo Serena (1881-1970). Set in Naples in contemporary times, Assunta, a laundry worker, who is engaged in an affair, defends her abusive fiancé in court and has an affair during her fiancé’s imprisonment. When he is released, he murders Assunta’s lover, but she takes the blame for his crime and is herself imprisoned.

The film was produced by Caesar Film and released on 28 October in Rome, with subsequent releases in Finland (1 May 1916), Sweden (18 December 1916), Denmark (12 February 1917), Japan (10 June 1918), Brazil, and Russia (Bianchi 2016: 153). Bertini was among three of the most internationally renowned Italian silent divas during the period around World War One—along with Lyda Borelli (1887-1959) and Pina Menichelli (1890-1984)—who personified a ‘serious, melancholy character type’ in their performances (Allen 2017: 70). Italian silent divas transformed male-authored texts, creating their own physical enactments, and realising their (written, textual) characters in their own particular ways.

By 1915, Bertini had already featured in over 50 silent films, as well as playing the lead character, including in La lussuria/Luxury (1919); La piovra/The Octopus (1919); La Contessa Sara/Countess Sara (1919); Mariute (1918), and by 1916 she was co-editing and co-directing all the films in which she starred. By 1918, Bertini was the most highly paid female actor in Italian cinema and was making on average four or five films per year (Dall’Asta 2018). In her autobiographical writings, which culminated in her memoir Il resto non conta (The Rest Does Not Count) published in 1969, she repeatedly claimed directorial status; in an interview with Gianfranco Mingozzi in 1982 she stated that, as the true director of Assunta Spina, she should be regarded as the forerunner of Neorealism—a genre of narrative documentary-style film shot on location and set among the working-classes that grew out of post-WW2 Italy, and drew largely on non-professional actors. She was also a screenwriter. From the 1920s onwards Bertini began to appear less and less on screen due to her so-called ‘outdated acting style’ and the advent of sound, which apparently did not suit her ‘feeble’ voice (Dall’Asta 2018). She died in Rome in 1985 at the age of 93.

My aim here is threefold. After reviewing the scholarship on female spectatorships within the context of early twentieth-century Italy, I draw on selected excerpts from Bertini’s memoir to shed light on her historical and affective responses to watching female performers, such as the great tragedienne, Eleonora Duse (1858-1924), who was a role model for Bertini while she was training to become an actor. I argue that Bertini’s influences in adolescence, as well as the sentimental novels she read and the melodramatic plays and operas she consumed as a spectator, contributed in no small measure to her eventual status as an international diva. Lastly, I consider Bertini’s female spectators, most notably, the internationally renowned writer and journalist Matilde Serao (1856-1927), whose reviews in her Mosconi column of Bertini’s performances in the daily broadsheet newspaper Il Giorno, which she founded in 1904, shed important light on historical female spectators in the Italian context. I argue that Bertini’s and Serao’s star personae as mutual spectators embodied a continuum of intergenerational, mobile, southern-European cosmopolitanism, offering their female spectators and readers a means to be self-conscious, discerning, and engaged as spectators. Bertini and Serao spanned two generations and were known for their acclaimed performances and/or writings. In my analysis, I lay bare accounts of admiration and female solidarity among them during a particular historical moment in Italy’s past, to suggest that this typified a burgeoning female culture industry on page, stage, and screen; one that has never yet been so productive and vibrant as during the period prior to the onset of fascism.


Eleonora Duse


Female Spectatorships in Early Twentieth-Century Italy

There were already around two thousand public libraries in Italy at the turn of the twentieth century, yet the 1901 census recorded 55 per cent of women as illiterate (Irace & Scotto Di Luzio 2012: 437). Committees for female suffrage existed in all major cities as far south as Naples, but the movement could collect only 600 signatures for a petition to the Italian parliament (Evans 1977: 136). Although arranged marriages were no longer de rigueur by 1910, and 1911 saw a woman wear trousers in public in Turin for the very first time (Dalle Vacche 2014: 24), less than 4 per cent of university graduates were women and they were still not entitled to work as doctors and lawyers (Raicich 1991: 157). Over half of the entire population (55 per cent) was still directly dependent on agriculture, and 40 per cent of Italians could still neither read nor write (Duggan 2014: 147). They could, however, watch, and understand film, thanks to affordable prices, literate spectators who would read aloud the intertitles, and professional ‘in-person’ actors who performed a given film’s plot in front of the screen (Raffaelli 2013: 247). Inferno, produced by Francesco Bertolini, Giuseppe De Liguoro and Adolfo Padovan in 1909, was the first full-length feature film, and its screenings were held in politeame—non-lavishly decorated egalitarian theatres, not unlike the British music halls, that housed up to around three-thousand spectators, and were built throughout the peninsula from the 1870s onwardsas well as taverns and hotels, according to a practice that lasted well into the 1910s and up until 1915. This was Italy’s ‘brief and glorious season’ in its cinema history (Bertellini 2013: 3). In this year, 562 Italian films were produced and exported to other European countries as well as to the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand; by 1930, that number had dropped to 12 (Wagstaff 1996: 219). Prior to the introduction in 1919 of the shot-reverse-shot, the point-of-view shot and the advent of sound and classical narrative cinema in the late 1920s, the two-dimensional aspect of silent film and the centring of the silent diva as the single most important character and actor (and screenwriter, often, director or co-director), offered women spectators a range of viewing positions.

Drawing on Freud’s concept of scopophilia (meaning ‘pleasure in looking’), in her famous 1975 article published in Screen, feminist film scholar Laura Mulvey theorised the masculine viewpoint in classical narrative cinema. She argued that the pleasure gained in looking is ‘male,’ that the ‘gaze’ in cinema is controlled by a male through the cameraman, director, and male protagonist, and is directed at the female, who is in turn objectified (Mulvey 1975: 11). For Mulvey, the cinematic spectator’s scopophilia is split between binaries of active/male and passive/female, and these pleasures are based on fetishistic and voyeuristic forms of looking which construct woman as spectacle; the (male) spectator identifies with the male protagonist in the narrative, and thus with his objectification of the female figure via the ‘male gaze.’ The ‘female gaze’ is either masochistically aligned with the objectified portrayal of femininity, or with the male protagonist as the locus of power (Mulvey 1975: 12). In response to Mulvey, Mary Ann Doane agreed that the ‘female gaze’ is indeed impossible, because women’s closeness to the female body means that she ‘overidentifies’ with the image of the woman on screen (Doane 1982: 80).

In an attempt to theorise a feminine spectatorial position that cannot simply be reduced to a masculine (masochistic) heterosexual equivalent, a proliferation of publications during the 1980s responded to Mulvey’s and Doane’s polemics. Feminist scholar and cultural critic Tania Modleski published a study on popular pleasure and feminine subjectivity in relation to the romance, the Gothic novel, and soap operas for female spectators and readers, in which she challenged those who dismissed these pleasures as ‘frivolous’ escapism. Taking issue with the Frankfurt School’s rejection of popular culture as merely reproductive of the status quo and the typical dismissal of popular women’s texts as insignificant, trivial, and unworthy of critical analysis, she drew on psychoanalytic theories and the work of Fredric Jameson to shed light on the pleasure they gave to women (Modleski 1982). Later, through a study of Hitchcock films, Modleski also showed how the ways in which women are oppressed by patriarchy ‘allow the female spectator to feel anger that is very different from the masochistic response’ (Modleski 1990). Feminist film scholar Jackie Stacey drew on two narrative Hollywood films that develop around one woman’s obsession with another woman to critique psychoanalytic film theory’s ‘rigid distinction between either [male] desire or [female] identification’ and its failure to ‘address the construction of desires which involve a specific interplay of both processes’ (Stacey 1987: 61). Stacey called for a nuanced spectrum with which to explore feminine spectatorships, arguing that there is a ‘homoerotic component’ in films about women with intimate friendships, even if there is no explicit non-normative female sexuality.

Literary and cultural studies scholar Janice Radway’s ethnographic study Reading the Romance signalled a new direction within feminist readings of popular culture to determine the specificity of a particular readership response. Radway analysed reading romance novels as a practice within the social context of a particular group of women’s lives, to argue that reading was a way for housewives to assert their autonomy within households in which they were there for others, despite the content of the romance novel which defines women as dependent on men (Radway: 1984). Modleski objected to Radway’s comparison of women’s reading of romances to folk performances, which ‘contest the hegemonic imposition of bourgeois culture on … subordinate groups,’ calling instead for a more feminist critical view of mass cultural production and mass cultural artefacts (Modleski 1986: xii). Influenced by Richard Dyer’s seminal work on stardom from the 1970s which introduced the idea of the ‘star text’ (Dyer 1979), and drawing on Radway’s ethnographic work, Stacey published Star Gazing, which challenged the universalism of the psychoanalytic approach (Stacey 1992). [1] She argued that ‘[t]he uniformity of the trajectories of feminine subjectivity, based on the universal feminine psyche, leave little room for a diversity of positions of readership/viewership … [t]he conclusions … cannot tell us anything about how these texts are read differently by specific groups of women’ (Stacey 1992: 44). By carrying out oral history interviews with female cinema spectators of Hollywood film from the 1940s and ’50s, Stacey instead focused on the consumption and escapism of, and identification with, the film star to give a new direction to questions of popular culture, cinematic pleasures, and feminine desire. Gaylyn Studlar also rejected Mulvey’s and Doane’s idea of women’s ‘masochistic’ identification with the passive female subject (Studlar 1992). Drawing on the neo-Freudian idea presented by Julia Kristeva on the pre-Oedipal stage of psychoanalysis—in which the unresolved mother-daughter relationship is established and which the patriarchy attempts to repress and deny—Studlar argued that the male spectator finds it necessary to repress certain ‘feminine’ aspects of himself. Moreover, she argued that men are forced to project these almost exclusively onto the woman who does the suffering for him. Thus, the male spectator both identifies with, and dreads the woman on screen because she potentially represents a threat to the patriarchy. At the same time, she articulates his (repressed) ‘feminine’ aspects. It is this viewing position that I find most convincing and applicable to the present essay.

Since spectators were often watching a combination of the performing arts and silent film in post-unification Italy up to the end of World War One in any given evening—particularly if they were frequenting one of the many politeame, our understanding of their ‘gazes’ becomes more complex and nuanced. At this historical juncture, the symbiotic connections between the different arts were competing side by side for audiences’ pleasure and engagement as never before. Male artists and writers in France had grown obsessed with studying the female subject following the French Revolution, which, as Peter Brooks has argued, required the body of the individual to become accountable and to converge with a later psychoanalytical emphasis on that body as female victim (Brooks 1994: 22). [2] This had found expression in French fictional works that bore the title of the name of the female protagonist; for example, Alexandre Soumet’s Norma, ou L’infanticide (1831), Alexandre Dumas fils’s La Dame aux camélias (1852) adapted from his novel (1848), Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1956), and later, Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin (1868). These are just some examples among many that were adapted for page, stage, and screen in Italy. Indeed, Italians had a particular fascination with this melodramatic, hystericised embodiment of the Magdalene archetype. Of Giacomo Puccini’s 13 operas, eight bear the name of the female lead, some of which are drawn from previously successful French novels and plays; for example: Manon Lescaut (first performed in 1893) from Antoine François Prévost’s novel published in 1731; La Bohème (whose première was in 1896) based on Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème (1851); Tosca (1900) drawn from Victorien Sardou’s play first performed in 1887. Other titles are drawn from short stories, novels and plays further afield: Madama Butterfly, which premièred in 1904, is from American John Luther Long’s short story ‘Madame Butterfly’ (1898); La fanciulla del West (first performed in 1910) comes from American theatrical producer David Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West (1905); La Rondine (1917) is based on a libretto by Alfred Maria Willner and Heinz Reichert. Still others are drawn from national sources: Suor Angelica (1918) is based on a libretto by Giovacchino Forzano, while Turandot (1926) derives from Carlo Gozzi’s 1762 play from the twelfth-century Persian epic Haft Peykar by Nizami.

The trope of the ‘realist’ suffering heroine/Fallen Woman—for example, Francesca Bertini’s Assunta in Assunta Spina—neither before nor since, had ever been so visually prevalent in live performance and on screen over a concentrated period. She is relatable to, and familiar to her audiences, even while the mise-en-scène in which she exists may be set a century prior. As a metaphor and repository for universal suffering and society’s ills (e.g., widespread poverty, unemployment, venereal disease, cholera, sexual exploitation), the silent screen diva—the female performer—was as much an idealised projection of desire as she was a scapegoat for every(hu)man, following Studlar’s notion of spectatorship. In her performance and the printed media, the diva had a celebrity following and was idolised by (mostly) women while othered by entrenched patriarchal structures and misogyny. And yet, she offered a possibility of hope and female solidarity, and inspired admiration, while symbolising anxiety and transformation in an era of modernity and rapid industrialisation. Typically entangled in a conflict involving love, loss, betrayal and desire, the woman performer was a catalyst for her female spectators’ epistemophilia (indicating an excessive love for knowledge), engagement, pleasure, and imaginary desires and longings.[3] We now turn to some examples of this engagement and pleasure on the part of Bertini, who writes about them in her memoir.

Bertini Spectator

Bertini recalls that in 1910 her mother took her to see the famous Italian actor Tina Di Lorenzo (1872-1930) playing the lead role in Henry Meilac and Ludovic Halévy’s Frou Frou (1870), in which a bored, aristocratic wife and mother has an affair, elopes, but is forgiven when her husband kills her lover (she then dies, as was customary in nineteenth-century bourgeois drama and novels in order to ‘restore’ the status quo). Bertini was aged 8, if sources claiming her year of birth was 1892 are correct (Jandelli 2006: 32). She remembers Di Lorenzo with admiration as ‘beautiful, passionate and feisty, in love, and sacrificing’ (Bertini 1969: 97).


Tina di Lorenzo


She continues:

I did not miss a moment of her lines as I sat in my chair; I followed her with consternation and also with so much sympathy. She was brilliant and beautiful! The scenes vibrated inside me like a hurricane that demolishes a forest, so much so that after the final act, I was on my feet madly applauding the great Tina Di Lorenzo, a highly intelligent and deeply elegant female actor who had moved and fascinated me (Bertini 1969: 97).

Bertini’s emotion and intensity of affect from watching Di Lorenzo is striking and palpable: her inclusion of an exclamation mark illustrates her utter enthusiasm and certainty about her idol. Bertini was ‘always at the theatre, even when [she] didn’t need to be [to act]; it was a habit to go anyway’ (Bertini 1969: 20). She recalls watching Magnetti playing the lead role of Assunta in Di Giacomo’s Assunta Spina. Bertini regarded her as ‘a very good actor, very human, wonderful’ (Bertini 1969: 20). On her first experience of acting for the silent screen, Bertini recalls her reaction to working for ‘the imaginary paradise … forbidden to so many young girls and perhaps the dream of so many others,’ describing the women spectators as ‘very elegantly dressed in light clothes with their hair up and decorated with flowers and fruit according to the fashion then’ (Bertini 1969: 34-39). She remembers them wanting to meet her after watching her on the silent screen, recalling the Duchess Ottavia Spinelli d’Aquara (1865-1936) as ‘very beautiful’ (Bertini 1969: 43). On her return to Naples, she reports having met Magnetti who asked her about acting for the silent screen. Bertini remembers having said that ‘being beautiful, having a perfect face that is photogenic and expressive, and a good figure, is all very important,’ but that ‘one cannot compare acting for the stage to acting in the cinema since they are two very different things’ (Bertini 1969: 46).

Bertini was also an avid operagoer. Summoned to Rimini to take part in filming for Gerolamo Lo Savio’s King Lear (1910), during her stay she was invited to see a sold-out performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1904), which she describes as ‘perfect’ and ‘fascinating’ (Bertini 1969: 54). She confesses to being a great fan of Puccini’s operas during a passage in which she recalls ‘the magnificent evenings’ she spent at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome, in which ‘great female singers triumphed: from Rosina Storchio (1872-1945) to Gabriella Besanzoni (1888-1962),’ who she recalls was ‘an amazing Santuzza [from Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (1891)], who delighted her spectators’ (Bertini 1969: 116). Remarking on the women who attended at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome, she reinforces the nineteenth-century cliché propounded by male artists and writers of the woman spectator who went ‘to show off [her] luxurious clothes and jewellery,’ while Bertini instead ‘went to gain relief from trying days at work,’ and ‘always left before the end of the performance’ (Bertini 1969: 116).

Another actor Bertini greatly admired was Eleanora Duse. Another actor Bertini greatly admired was Eleanora Duse, who attended the première of Giuseppe de Liguoro and Gustavo Serena’s Fedora (1916) at the Teatro delle Quattro Fontane in Rome—the film Bertini confesses to having enjoyed working on the most. Duse had summoned a meeting in her hotel room with Bertini, which Bertini described as ‘one of the most beautiful moments of [her] life’ (Bertini 1969: 107). Bertini tells Duse—for whom D’Annunzio wrote his play Francesca da Rimini (1901)—she would have liked to have seen Duse perform the title role, and Duse reportedly began reciting some lines from the play for her. In 1910, having debuted as the female lead in Louis Gasnier’s film version of Verdi’s Il trovatore (Film d’Arte Italiana, 1910) released in Rome, Bertini returned to Naples and reports being invited to sit in Di Giacomo’s and Murolo’s box to watch a performance (she does not name which). She writes, ‘[I]t was ideal for me to be, once and for all, a female spectator’ and how it was ‘a coming-of-age’ for her; she no longer felt she was a little timid, sad girl, but that she was ‘becoming someone’ (Bertini 1969: 46).

Bertini’s Female Spectators

Recalling the première of Fedora, Bertini reports that ‘the spectators were enthusiastic, and the audience applauded the love scene wildly. Spectators were entranced by the drama of the last act in which the dying Fedora asks Loris for an embrace,’ and that ‘Duse continued to applaud when the lights came on and was emotionally moved’ (Bertini 1969: 102). Bertini reports that Duse had said to the director Alfredo De Antoni, who was in attendance: ‘Fedora’s death moved me profoundly. Francesca Bertini interpreted it with so much grace. Please, do tell her how much I admire her, and that I would be delighted to meet her’ (Bertini 1969: 102). Duse purportedly said to Bertini that she had ‘watched [Bertini’s] interpretation and did not miss a second of it, believing that what [she] saw was not cinema but theatre.’ During the meeting that took place between Bertini and Duse in her hotel room, they reportedly had a conversation on the merits or otherwise of performing for the stage and screen, and Duse enquired as to why Bertini had not pursued a career as a theatre actor; she hesitates, however, stating (according to Bertini) that ‘Theatre has irreplaceable values and strengths that will never die, but it also has many difficulties. On reflection,’ she continued, ‘I think you are right. The silver screen is better: a new art that, I am sure, will make big in-roads. And you will be its greatest expression,’ to which Bertini responded that cinema is her passion, and she dedicates all of herself, her soul, to it (Bertini 1969: 105).

In 1918, Bertini starred in La Tosca co-directed by Bertini and De Antoni and based on Victorien Sardou’s play, the première for which Matilde Serao was in attendance. According to Bertini, Serao spoke enthusiastically about the film at the première (Bertini 1969: 128) and went on to publish in her daily newspaper Il Giorno. In it, Serao claimed she ‘had never seen such a well-dressed and beautiful Tosca,’ adding that she had ‘seen many, including Sarah Bernhardt’s [version] in Paris. Commenting on Serao, Bertini describes her ‘astute observations’ and ‘innate taste for elegance.’ Similar to the mutual appreciation she expressed towards Duse, Bertini describes Serao’s ‘passionate and spontaneous affection’ towards her, which was apparently mutual, and her own deference, unlimited admiration and devoted affection for the gifted writer, confessing that ‘her novels had peopled her Neapolitan years with dreams’ before they even met (Bertini 1969: 128-130). For Bertini, Serao was an ‘exceptional woman, not only for her indisputable genius, but also because of her temperament and her brilliant conversation,’ adding of her cosmopolitanism: ‘Serao had met the most illustrious people on her many trips abroad, and so her conversations were rich in anecdotes’ (Bertini 1969: 131). Bertini regrets that she was never able to work with her on a film version of her play, O Giovannino, o la morte, (Giovannino, or Death) adapted with Murolo for the stage in 1912. Serao had reportedly written to Giuseppe Barattolo, the director of Caesar Films, about how happy she would be to see the female protagonist Chiarina of her short story and play performed by Bertini, but they had apparently never reached an agreement (Bertini 1969: 131). Instead, Renzo Sonzogno’s Musical Film company produced Serao’s film in 1914, for which she also wrote the screenplay. On hearing of Serao’s death in 1927, Bertini writes that her sense of loss was profound; she had lost an ‘illustrious and great friend,’ whom she had loved ‘as if she were her daughter’ (my italics).


Matilde Serao (left) and Francesca Bertini (right) on the beach in Viareggio, July 1917. Image courtesy of Fondazione Giorgio Cini.


As an intellectual, Serao thought deeply about the new artistic medium, and in particular its spectators. In her article ‘Parla una spectatrice’ (A Woman Spectator Is Speaking) published in L’arte muta in 1916, she writes as a self-declared ‘spectatrix,’ reflecting in retrospect on ‘the reasons for [her] tears, [her] smiles, [her boredom].’ As a ‘creature of the crowd,’ she addresses poets, playwrights, and screenwriters, and tells them ‘[i]t is she whom you should move, whom you should please’ (Serao 1916: 31). Reflecting on how new film productions can satisfy spectators, Serao counsels production teams to ‘include scenes with a lot of movement and scenes from everyday life.’ Confessing how for months she has paid 8 or 12 soldi to discover which films would move and entice her, she states:

I sat still in a corner in silence, like all the other spectators; and my anonymous and unknown being became just like that of other anonymous spectators … And do you know what happened? I had exactly the same impressions of the film as my neighbour to my right who was perhaps a shop assistant; the same impressions as my neighbour to my left, who, I imagine, was a young woman from the countryside who had moved to the city (Serao 1916: 31).

In this way—writes Serao—she has become ‘the perfect woman spectator,’ laughing and crying with the indiscriminate, homogenous mass in the darkened auditorium. Bespeaking the regressive state and ‘womb-like’ sensations of watching cinema theorised by Jean-Louis Baudry in the 1960s, she concludes that:

[C]inema spectators are millions of simple souls who become so through one of the most bizarre miracles penetrating auditoria; indeed, the auditorium is a unique, simple soul (Serao 1916: 31).

Thus, Serao became a self-declared and converted cinephile in the same way as her friend Duse, mocking the moralising well-to-do (who targeted cinema producers, screenwriters, and divas) for arguing that the new modern invention is ‘immoral’ and ‘trivial’ (Serao 1918a). Earlier during the same year, Serao had written positively about Bertini’s and De Antoni’s La Tosca, though not before mentioning Giuseppe Giacosa’s and Luigi Illica’s ‘wonderful’ opera version (1900) that Puccini ‘skilfully, brilliantly, and sweetly’ set to music, and from which it is also adapted (Serao 1918b). Marvelling at the ‘scenic and artistic resources’ that artists had access to thanks to the availability of camera technology, Serao observes how ‘scenes could be shot on location in monumental churches, the Palazzo Farnese and the Castel Sant’Angelo’ (Serao 1918b). Describing the ‘fascinating’ Bertini in the starring role, she mentions her ‘insuperable silent art’ and her ‘splendid interpretation’ of Floria Tosca alongside the ‘sublime’ artists Gustavo Serena in the role of Cavaradossi, and Alfredo De Antoni as Scarpia. Reporting that critics’ reviews following its screening in Rome were enthusiastic, Serao announces that the projection will be accompanied by an orchestra and singers. Predicting that the cinema auditorium will be packed full of Neapolitan spectators given the low cost of tickets and the speed with which they were selling, she describes the film as ‘the greatest work of cinematic art thus far’ (Serao 1918b).


These insights into Bertini’s intergenerational ties and affective bonds with female actors, and in the case of Serao, writers, reveal momentary traces and examples of discerning female gazes through which (exceptional) middle-class women were moved, inspired, emboldened, and uplifted by one another’s performances. Serao’s published musings of female gazes in her fiction and journalism produced what Lawrence Grossberg has defined as a ‘productive network of empowerment’ among her and her women readers, including Bertini, an ‘affective alliance’ (Grossberg 1997: 44). As portents of modernity and intermediaries for women spectators, fans, and readers, Bertini’s encounters with Duse and her friendship with Serao was based on admiration and solidarity. This extended from them to spectators and readers, and back to Bertini, in a continuous positive feedback loop. In thinking about the fin de siècle melodramatic mode in which the ‘visual power [and] disruptive energy … of the women who are their subjects and the women who are their interpreters cannot be contained’ (Gundle 2020: 123), attention to the weight of feeling expressed by women spectators towards women performers can reveal much about what mattered to spectators.


Material in this article is drawn from the author’s book Gender, Writing, Spectatorships: Evenings at the Theatre, Opera, and Silent Screen in Late Nineteenth-Century Italy and Beyond (London & New York: Routledge, 2022).

[1] The ‘star text’ refers to the production and construction of the star persona across a range of media and cultural practices, including promotional material and publicity.

[2] For Brooks, the Magdalen figure is ‘a victimised woman’s body on which desire has inscribed an impossible history, a story of desire in an impasse.’ Her heavily surveyed spectre has arguably re-emerged in British celebrity culture in recent times in footage of the emotional outpouring at the death of Diana, Princess of Wales (1961-97), and the rise in popularity of reality TV with deceased celebrities, including Jade Goody (1981-2009) and, more recently, Caroline Flack (1979-2020).

[3] The term ‘epistemophilia’ was first coined as a type of ‘gaze’ by Laura Mulvey (Mulvey 1996: 59).


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