2022 Grateful 5: Adelaide Ristori

I get a nice warm feeling when I see a client’s work published, knowing that I had a hand in their creation, be it an article in a peer-reviewed journal, a book, or a speech I helped craft. The Adelaide Ristori exhibition in Genova was different though.

One of the added benefits of working on such a wide variety of texts is that I get to know quite a little about quite a lot. Oftentimes, I think I should be paying my clients for the education I receive. It’s a fleeting thought, mind you. But it’s there.

I have a few favourites. Livia is one of them.

I’d worked with her before on theatre-related texts and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I’ve always come away learning something new. This time it was about Adelaide Ristori (1822-1906), reputedly the greatest Italian actress of the nineteenth century.

Ristori was born into a family of modest actors who tread the stage in run-of-the-mill theatre companies. As I worked on the text, I built a picture of her in my mind’s eye: a petite, delicate thing of rare beauty. Did I ever get that wrong. [Check out the photo of her from 1855 in the Getty Museum. or that in the National Portrait Gallery in London.]

Homely. That’s the word that popped into my mind when I saw a picture of her. It was followed closely by mannish. Far from the delicate features I’d expected, she was of hearty build. It wasn’t beauty that set her apart, it was charisma.

She married well, into a noble family, and became a marquise as her husband, Giuliano Capranica, was the Marquis del Grillo. Ristori and he shared business-like minds and, long before the Kardashians showed us how to build a celebrity brand, Ristori made the world her own. Even upon retirement, she met with a modicum of fame as lady-in-waiting to Queen Margaret.

Ristori was way ahead of her time. She was the first to realise the importance of costumes and their role in getting the audience on board.

[I remember many moons ago, at the opening night of an opera in Dublin, I was sitting with my good friend PM who had built the set. When the curtains went up, the audience gave a collective (and very audible) gasp of appreciation and immediately bought into what was to come. It’s the same with costumes.]

Rather than do as everyone else was doing and rummaging through the theatre company’s costume box, using the same clothes over and over with a bit added or subtracted for effect, Ristori had hers designed by artists and tailored just for her.

Thanks to Adelaide, the theatrical costume stopped being a mere accessory and became a co-actor, part of the actress’s dramaturgy and an indispensable tool for the performance’s success. It was through the study and design of costumes that the actress got into character and built her personality, just as it was her costume that immediately captured the spectators’ attention, stimulating the process of identification with the character on stage.

And it wasn’t a tailor down the street whose needle was threaded. She used the finest fashion houses, those with their thimbles on the pulse of what was new and trending. She became more than an actress; she became a style icon.

The costumes on display in the Genovese Palazzo Nicolosio-Lomellino, itself a stunning building [those doors in the first photo are leather!] are magnificent.

Collage of four nineteenth-century theatre costumes - Beige silk with red bodice and train; beige bodice with blue skirt and train; blue bodice trimmed in gold with hooped skirt; and orange and cream striped taffeta tripped in grey/bold applique

The detail is exquisite. What makes the exhibition special, for me at least, is that she had photographs taken of herself in costume, some of which were on display beside the actual costume itself (that they’ve survived more than a century is remarkable). And this was back in the day when having a photo of yourself took time, patience, and a lot of sitting still.

Two photos side by side. One of a gold and blue heavinly embroidered nineteenth-century gown on a mannequin, the other a photo of the Italian actress Adelaide Ristori wearing the same gown. The playbill is headed Houseworth's Celebrities.

Three photos. First is a frontal segment of a green and gold nineteenth-century theatre costume from the play Elizabeth 1. The middle shows an photo of the actress Adelaide Ristori wearing the gown, And the third shows the heavily emrboidered back of the cloak.

I wondered what they weighed. I wondered how long it took her to change from one to another (if I remember correctly, she had seven costume changes for Elizabeth I) and how many people had to help her. I wondered how she fit into them!

And the shoes. Oh, the shoes. How that woman must have suffered for her art.

Two photos - the first of two pairs of cloth buttoned shoes from the 19th century - one in beige silk with greenish emrboidered cirlces; the other strappy red satin sandals. To the right is a phto of a 19th century theatre costume on pale pink - floor length, long sleeves, boat neck and pinched waist

Photo of a display case containing four pairs of embroidered satin shoes 1) gold on cream, laced 2) gold on green, with side buttones, 3) gold on red with bows, and 4) black on red slippers. At the back of the box is an open pearl-colored fan

Adelaide Ristori was a remarkable woman. Way ahead of her time. She paved the way for theatre as we know it today. Known and appreciated globally in a time when we had no social media, no internet, no television, Ristori truly made her mark on the world.

The Americans loved her.

Ignorant of English and no knowledge of Macbeth but what she had obtained from interior translation, Ristori has made the part of Lady Macbeth her own. It is the interpretation of Shakespeare’s soul.

And yet, I’d never heard of her. Anyone I’ve mentioned her to has looked at me with the same blank look as I had when I first started on the text. Okay, so I’m not in theatre, or of the theatre, but I’m an avid fan of all things staged. During the 18 months or so I spent in London way back when, I went to the theatre every week, religiously. I read the programmes from cover to cover. I read the biographical blubs on the actors, the set designers, and the costume designers. And nary a mention.

But theatre aside, Ristori was first and foremost a woman.

That same review in the American Art Journal in 1867 said:

Her Lady Macbeth is powerful in intellect, beautiful in affection, first a woman, then a queen […]

She was a woman who carved a niche for herself in an age where women and men inhabited separate spheres. But even more than carving a niche, Adelaide Ristori paved the way for those who would follow. Men took her seriously. Audiences respected her for her talent rather than her beauty. She set her mind on things and went and did them. Against the odds.

Adelaide Ristori was born 200 years ago. Genova has been celebrating her bicentenary all year. This exhibition is one of the final elements in a programme designed to reacquaint her with the world. It runs until 22 January 2023. If you’re looking for somewhere to go for a weekend after Christmas, put Genova, and the exhibition, on your list.

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to work on this, and to have been able to see it in person. Adelaide Ristori, you rock!

Now, to convince Livia to write a book about her…

Side view of a velvet red gown with puffed white sleeves and a long train embossed with gold embroidery. To the left, in the background, is a simialar 19th-century gown in gree velvet






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