22 January 2018

Elsa De Giorgi

Italian stage and screen actress Elsa De Giorgi (1914-1997) worked also as a director and set designer and was a successful novelist. She had a prolific career in the Italian cinema under Mussolini, and after the war she worked on stage with Luchino Visconti and Giorgi Strehler and in films by Pier Paolo Pasolini. But she is now best remembered for her extramarital affair with author Italo Calvino.

Elsa De Giorgi
Italian postcard by Rizzoli, Milano, 1938. Photo: Tirrenia Film.

Elsa De Giorgi
Italian postcard by Fotoluxardo, Roma. Publicity card for Melloni textiles, Bologna.

Ancient provincial aristocracy

Elsa De Giorgi was born Elsa Giorgi Alberti in 1914 in Pesaro. Her family was of ancient provincial aristocracy, the Giorgi Alberti’s, nobles of Bevagna and Camerino, patricians of Spoleto.

At the age of almost 18, she participated in a photographic competition. She was discovered by film director Mario Camerini, who offered her the role of the protagonist in T'amerò sempre/I will always love you (1933). In this film, a girl (De Giorgi) gives birth to a daughter but the father, a playboy (Mino Doro), has dumped her. Years after, they meet again, but there is also the girl’s colleague, an accountant (Nino Besozzi).

After this film debut, titles followed like the comedy L'impiegata di papà/Dad's clerk (Alessandro Blasetti, 1934) with Memo Benassi, the drama Porto/Port (Amleto Palermi, 1934) with Irma Grammatica and Camillo Pilotto, and Teresa Confalonieri/Loyalty of Love (Guido Brignone, 1934) with Marta Abba.

In the Luigi Pirandello adaptation Ma non è una cosa seria/But It's Nothing Serious (Mario Camerini, 1937) and La mazurca di papà/Daddy's mazurca (Oreste Biancoli 1938), she co-starred with Vittorio De Sica, and in La signora Paradiso (Enrico Guazzoni 1937), she had the lead role opposite Mino Doro and Memo Benassi.

Towards and during the war, De Giorgi often played in period pieces. This started with the lead role as Desirée Clary, Napoleon’s beloved in La sposa dei re/The Bride of the Kings (Duilio Coletti 1938) with Augusto Marcacci as Napoleon Bonaparte.

Other historical films with her are Il fornaretto di Venezia/The Fornaretto of Venice (Duilio Coletti, 1939) starring Roberto Villa as the unjustly accused, Capitan Fracassa/Captain Fracasse (Duilio Coletti, 1940) with Giorgio Costantini and Osvaldo Valenti, Fra' Diavolo/The Adventures of Fra Diavolo (Luigi Zampa, 1942) with Enzo Fiermonte, and La locandiera/The Innkeeper (Luigi Chiarini, 1944) starring Luisa Ferida.

In several of the wartime films De Giorgi was not allowed to have her own voice, and it was mainly Lydia Simoneschi who dubbed her.

Elsa De Giorgi
Italian postcard by Stab. Angeli, Terni, Ditta Terzoli, Roma, no. 333 Photo: Gneme.

Notorious Love Letters

Elsa De Giorgi had a prolific career in the Italian cinema under Mussolini, but her anti-fascism (notable is her description in her book I coetanei of her quarrel with Fascist minister Alessandro Pavolini) did not make her love acting in the regime’s films. Instead, she preferred working for the theatre.

In the post-war era, she would mostly perform on stage with directors such as Giorgio Strehler and Luchino Visconti. In 1949 Visconti called her to be Helen of Troy in his staging of William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida at the Boboli gardens in Florence, during the Maggio Musicale. In 1957 she played Madame Roland in Giacobini by Federico Zardi, staged at the Teatro Piccolo in Milan by Giorgio Strehler.

She was married to resistance fighter and war hero, Count Sandrino Contini Bonacossi, who was the wealthy son of a renowned art merchant. In the second half of the 1950s and during her marriage with the Florentine aristocrat, she had a relationship with the writer Italo Calvino, described in her book Ho visto partire il tuo treno (I've Seen Your Train Leaving, 1992).

In 1955 she published I coetanei, a public diary with many references to the partisan struggle (with a tribute to her husband Sandrino) and to the Roman cinema of the period around the war. It won her the Premio Viareggio but it also lead to her relationship with Calvino, who was text editor for her book.

In the early sixties, she collaborated as theatre critic to the Roman paper Il Pensiero Nazionale.

She had a small part in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s short film La ricotta (1963). In 1975, she interpreted Ms. Maggi, one of the narrators of Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma/Salò, or the 120 days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975).

Her final screen credit was in the Alberto Sordi comedy Assolto per aver commesso il fatto/Acquitted for Having Committed the Deed(Alberto Sordi, 1993) in which she appeared briefly as a countess. Elsa De Giorgi died in Rome in 1997. She was 83.

In 2004, fragments were published of the some 400 (love) letters, which Italo Calvino wrote to her in the years of their affair (1955-1958) and which were kept by the University of Pavia. De Giorgi had sold the love letters to the archive in 1994, with the condition that they would not be opened for the following 25 years.

Still, a journalist could not wait and published excerpts in the Corriere della Sera, proving thus that the restrained, ironic writer had been a wildly passionate lover. Calvino’s widow, Chichita Calvino, was not amused and tried to prevent further publications. It also sparked a fierce debate between left and right on culture & politics and ownership of the media.

Furthermore, it became clear that Sandrino Contini Bonacossi, Elsa’s husband, who had suddenly disappeared in 1955 and was suspected of financial malversations, had instead left because he could not stand the triangular affair anymore. Afterwards he would divorce De Giorgi and disinherit her. Possibly this was the reason why De Giorgi eventually sold the letters in 1994.

In 1975, Sandrino Contini Bonacossi hung himself in New York. This seems to have no connection with De Giorgi’s affair with Calvino. In her book L'eredità Contini-Bonacossi, De Giorgi reconstructed the mysterious affair of clandestine export of art works, which had her husband as the main victim.

After his affair with Elsa De Giorgi, Italo Calvino wrote several novels with aristocrats in the title, such as The Cloven Viscount, The Baron in the Trees, and The Nonexistent Knight. De Giorgi claimed that the titles refer to her unfortunate husband and to her affair of Calvino, but this has been contested. While Elsa’s career dwindled, Calvino’s fame grew.

Italo Calvino died in 1985, twelve years before Elsa De Giorgi. After her death in 1997, the university of Pavia also acquired the 6000 volumes library of De Giorgi and her husband.

Elsa De Giorgi
Italian postcard by Rizzoli, 1939.

Elsa De Giorgi
Italian postcard by Rizzoli, 1940. Photo: Venturini.

Sources: John Hooper (The Guardian), Biblioteca universitaria di Pavia (Italian), Frankfurter Algemeine (German), Wikipedia (Italian and English), and IMDb.

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