Thursday, July 3, 2008

Eleonora Duse 1858-2008 - Venice

(VENICE, ITALY) Yesterday, I had the privilege to be invited to a press conference at Palazzo Balbi by the Giorgio Cini Foundation and the Veneto Region. Eleonora Duse -- that fascinating woman -- will be the subject of a celebration this fall in honor of her birth, 150 years ago.

Thanks to the Academy Awards, the general public is now familiar with the French singer, Edith Piaf. Long before there were movie stars in Hollywood, here in Europe, there were many women who lived their lives with passion and dare. Eleonora Duse was a giant among them.

First, a brief blurb about the Giorgio Cini Foundation. To give you a hint of the scope of this organization, before there was G8, there was G7, and twice the meeting was held at the Cini Foundation, in 1980 and 1987. Located on the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore, Count Vittorio Cini created the foundation in memory of his son Giorgio, who died in a plane crash. We cannot know the depth of his grief, but we are fortunate that he had the strength of character to spin straw into gold and leave this treasure to mankind, an oasis for enlightened thinkers. I am for anything that allows one the freedom to use one's mind -- to agree or disagree without blindly following, or being forced into an opinion. And they are devoted to Vivaldi!

So, if the Cini Foundation, together with the Region of Venice (the Region is sort of like a county in the States, and the Veneto Region happens to be one of the most powerful in the land) decide to focus the spotlight on Eleonora Duse, it is impressive.

Since I drift in and out at press conferences, especially when they are in Italian, I started thinking about the energy of a woman like Eleonora Duse, born into a family of poor actors, who became so powerful that we are celebrating her birth 150 years later. She was a Star on Earth, and she did burn some ordinary mortals. Perhaps it takes us 150 years to examine such energy. Perhaps the Light is too bright. Still it shines, still it shines. We can only imagine the wattage we would encounter if we had met her while she was alive. Washington, D.C. itself got a shock when President Cleveland's wife invited Eleonora, an Italian actress, for tea.

When she was 21-years-old, she had an intense love affair with a journalist who left her while she was pregnant. The baby died before birth, and soon after, so did he...

I'll let you do some research on your own, but her most famous love affair was, of course, with Gabriele d'Annunzio. D'Annunzio is a household name here in Italy, but I would imagine that many of you in America don't know who he is. Well, I HAVE BEEN TO HIS HOUSE on Lake Garda, and it is one of the most incredible villas on this planet. In fact, it's been a lifelong dream of mine to fashion an apartment inspired by d'Annunzio -- I am wild for his bathroom with the blue tub.

Wikipedia describes d'Annunzio as an Italian poet, journalist, novelist, dramatist, and daredevil. One of my favorite rooms in his house was his office. It has a low doorway, so you must bow your head to enter. Over the door is etched: Hoc opus, hic labor est: "This is the work, here is the working." On his shelf is the head of Eleonora Duse, "the veiled witness," which he would cover with a veil before he began to work.

Here is a quote I found by Duse on the Jewish Theater website from Drama's Queen / Eleonora Duse, the great 19th century actress by Peter Kurth in his review of Helen Sheehy's book, Eleonora Duse, published by my own beloved publisher, Knopf.
http://www.jewish-theatre.com/visitor/article_display.aspx?articleID=238 Duse describes how she felt about her performance at the ancient Roman amphitheater in Verona:

"Oh, grace," Duse later exclaimed, "it was a state of grace!" The crowd roared its approval with a noise that left her exalted, "terrified, " lost in a sea of "indescribable... abandonment." As she wrote to a lover many years later, "The supreme power spoke to me of what I must do in my life; I bowed my head ... and I said, 'So be it.'"

Eleonora Duse and Gabriele d'Annunzio also caused some commotion here in Venice, among other venues. When he wrote a play and gave the lead to her rival, Sarah Bernhardt, not Eleonora, she left him. Duse and d'Annunzio are archetypes of human beings who really existed not so long ago, who really loved each other, and who we still recognize and celebrate. They left us many, many gifts, and that is why we are fortunate that the Cini Foundation and the Veneto are sponsoring this tribute, which will begin in September and focus during October 1-4, and include letters, film, and a theatrical production put on by the Goldoni Theater (another one of my favorite organizations), among other events.

Now you are aware:). More details to come.

Ciao from Venice,
Cat

P.S. I just can't resist adding an aerial view of the Vittoriale, d'Annunzio's house.

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