March is Women in History Month and throughout the issues this month, the Italian Tribune will bring features on influential women from centuries past, as well as from more recent times. You will read about women who changed society, both in Italy and in the United States; women who enriched the world through the arts, who left their mark in the sciences, politics and in business. Let us celebrate women in history and honor the many who might otherwise have gone unnoticed, but who made their world a better place than they found it.
Elsa Morante (1912-1985) was an Italian novelist born to a Sicilian father and an Emilian mother. She left home at the age of 18 and was introduced to Alberto Moravia, a well-known anti-fascist novelist in 1937. The two were married in 1941. Morante published her first book in 1941, a collection of short stories entitled “Il Gioco Segreto.” Her second was a children’s book titled “Le Bellissime avventure di Caterì dalla Trecciolina” and was published in 1942. Her husband was half-Jewish and the couple fled to Ciociaria in the Lazio region of central Italy, living in constant fear of the Fascists. This was later documented in her work “La Storia,” published in 1974. The novel, although a best-seller, proved to be Morante’s most controversial work. She continued to publish some short stories and essays up until her death in 1985.
Renata Tebaldi (1922-2004) is one of the most famous opera singers of the 20th century. Renata Ersilia Clotilde Tebaldi was born in Pesaro, Italy on February 1, 1922. Her father, Teobaldi Tebaldi was a gifted cellist and her mother, Giuseppina Barbieri, was a singer-turned-nurse. Tebaldi also suffered from polio when she was young and was confined to her house. She practiced singing while playing the piano for four to five hours each day. In 1944, Tebaldi made her debut in composer Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele and gained immense recognition in 1946 after she auditioned in Milan for famed Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, who described her voice as that of an angel. Tebaldi sang a total of 1,262 performances and refused to sing in any other language except Italian. Tebaldi passed away on in 2004 at the age of 82 at her home in San Marino.
Grazia Deledda (1871-1936), a Nobel Prize recipient, was born in the town of Nuoro on the island of Sardinia. Her mother, Francesca Cambosu, was very religious and raised her children with strict moral codes. Grazia’s father was a wealthy landowner, an avid reader and a writer. Grazia attended the small local school and was also educated at home, where she learned both Italian and French and grew up with the old Sardinian legends and traditions as part of her education. She completed her first short story, “Sangue Sardo” (Sardinian Blood), which was published by the Italian fashion magazine Ultima Moda. Her first novel, “Fior di Sardegna” (Flower of Sardinia), written in 1892, was published soon after being sent to an editor in Rome. Subsequent novels, “Anime Oneste” (Honest Souls) and “La Vie del Males” (The Way of Evil) were also published and well-received. Many of Deledda’s writing touched on social norms and the suffering of mothers. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1926 for her writings of life on her native island of Sardinia. Grazia was a quiet woman, her acceptance speech at the Nobel awards ceremony was the shortest in history. She passed away in 1936.
Mabel “Nell” Taliaferro (1887-1979) was an American stage and silent screen actress. She was known as the Sweetheart of American Movies during the early days of film. Taliaferro was descended on her father’s side from one of the early families who settled in Virginia in the 17th century, whose roots were in northern Italy. Born in New York City and raised in Richmond, Virginia, she started her acting career at the age of 12, landing small parts in local theater productions. In 1899, her family moved back to New York City. It was there that she met and married Frederic Thompson, the well-known theatrical producer who launched her career. After a tumultuous marriage, Mabel divorced Thompson and decided to focus on the cinema. In 1912, the Selig Studios cast her in the film version of “Cinderella” which co-starred her future husband, Thomas Carrigan. Her performance as Cinderella made her a household name. Starring in over twenty films, her final one was “My Love Came Back” in 1940. She also appeared on numerous television shows, continuing to perform well beyond her ‘official’ retirement.
Edith Taliaferro (1894-1958) was Mabel’s younger sister. She was a popular Broadway actress of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A skilled and engaging comedian, she was active on the stage until 1935. She is best known for her 1913 performance in “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.” At the age of ten, she was earning $100 per week and was one of the highest paid actresses of that time. She was also the youngest Shakespearean actress on the stage portraying Puck in a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” before an audience at Princeton University in 1904. Most of her later work was in film and on radio. Edith Taliaferro died after a long illness in Newtown, Connecticut in 1958 at the age of 63.
Amelita Galli-Curci (1882-1963) was one of the best known coloratura opera singers of the early 20th century with her gramophone records selling in large numbers. Born into an upper-middle-class family in Milan, Amelita studied piano at the Milan Conservatory, winning a gold medal. She was inspired to sing by her grandmother and honed her technique by listening to other sopranos, reading singing-method books and practicing piano exercises with her voice instead of using a keyboard. Galli-Curci made her operatic debut in 1906 in Trani, Italy as Gilda in Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” She quickly earned acclaim throughout Italy for the sweetness and agility of her voice as well as her captivating musical interpretations. In 1908, she wed a nobleman, the Marchese Luigi Curci, attaching his surname to hers. They divorced in 1920. The following year, Galli-Curci married Homer Samuels, her accompanist. She toured widely in Europe, including appearances in Russia and in South America, singing two performances of “Lucia di Lammermoor” with Enrico Caruso in Buenos Aires. She arrived in the United States in 1916 as a virtual unknown. Her stay was intended to be brief, but the acclaim she received was such that she accepted an offer to sing with the Chicago Opera Company. She also signed a recording contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company. In 1921, she joined the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, remaining with the Met until her retirement nine years later. She died in 1963 at the age of 81. Galli-Curci’s voice can still be heard on CD reissues of her 78-rpm recordings of songs, duets and arias.
Tina Modotti (1896-1942) was born in Udine, Italy in 1896. As a young girl, her interest in photography was sparked through her uncle, who owned a photo studio. Her family immigrated to the United States in 1913. In 1918 she married Roubaix “Robo” de l’Abrie Richey and moved with him to Hollywood, California. She worked for a short period as an actress and also began to model for photographer Edward Weston. Within a year, she had become his favorite model and also his lover. Her husband then moved to Mexico and died soon after. Tina and Weston moved to Mexico City in 1923 and opened a portrait studio. It was there that she decided to actively pursue photography as a career. Many of her photographs were political statements, images of men and women at work and the oppression of the regime. In August 1929, she created the famous photographs of the women of Tehuantepec, a small town in the southeastern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Her one-woman retrospective exhibition at the National Library in December 1929 was advertised as “The First Revolutionary Photographic Exhibition in Mexico.” She was deported from Mexico two years later because of her political activism. During the next few years she engaged in various missions on behalf of the International Workers’ Relief organizations in Europe. She moved frequently during this period, from Russia to France and then to Spain. In 1939, she returned to Mexico under a pseudonym, where she lived until her death in 1942.
Maria Nazarena Majone (1869-1939) was Mother General and co-foundress of the Figlie del Divino Zelo FDZ (Daughters of the Divine Zeal) or FDZ. She was born in Graniti, in the province of Messina, Sicily. She was the last of six children born to Marta Falcone and Bruno Majone. Her father worked as a forest ranger on the large feudal property of the Marchese of Schisò, while her mother tended to her home and raised her children according to strict moral and religious principles. Maria’s childhood was happy and serene. Tragedy struck her family when at eleven years old, her father died. Despite the hardships, Maria retained her cheerful personality and was always available to assist those who requested her help. At the age of twenty, she met two sisters who had come to Messina to assist the orphans of the city. She volunteered her services to the Blessed Annibale Maria di Francia, who operated a Christian mission. Maria pledged to give her life in service and in 1892 she took her vows under the name Sister Nazarena. For many years, Sister Nazarena’s dedication and sacrifices were immense, so much that she was chosen to become the co-founder, along with Father Annibale, of the Confederation of the Daughters of Divine Zeal. Her strength and resolve would be greatly tested when, on December 28, 1908, Messina was hit by a devastating earthquake which killed over eighty thousand. Sister Nazarena became the FDZ’s first Mother Superior in Messina and went on to found the House of the FDZ in Taormina. She also served in the mission in Rome and then returned for a time to Messina. She died in Rome in 1939 at the age of 70. For her life of service and dedication to the needy, which she carried out with great humility and sweetness, the Church began the process of canonization in 1992. She was proclaimed Venerable (Blessed) by Pope John Paul II in October of 2003.