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Rosina Ferrario

Women in History Month

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, in 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.

Adelina Patti (1843 to 1919), the “Queen of Hearts,” was born into a family of singers. Adelina went on to become a widely acclaimed nineteenth century opera performer in the capital cities of Europe and America. Her parents were tenor Salvatore Patti and soprano Caterina Barilli. Adelina’s family moved to New York City in her early childhood. She performed her first opera at age sixteen in the title role of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the Academy of Music in New York. The following year she sang as a soloist in front of the Prince of Wales during the world premiere of Cantata. Her stunning success as Amina in Bellini’s “La Sonnanbula” at London’s Covent Garden in 1861 led to a European tour and the opportunity to tour in America. She did so in 1862, where she performed for President Lincoln and his wife. This legendary singer recorded more than thirty gramophone recordings of songs and operatic arias over the course of her career. Her last public performance was in 1914. She then retired to a castle she had purchased to live out her last years.

Giuseppina Morlacchi (c. 1846-1886), was a ballerina and dance instructor (The Peerless Morlacchi). Born around 1846 in Milan, Italy, by the age of six she was enrolled at the famous La Scala ballet school. In 1856, she debuted in Genoa and then went on to perform in the major cities of Europe. She was signed to headline an American tour in 1867. She reveled in creating new routines, including the introduction of the Can Can, a dance she had learned from her performances in Paris. Her introduction in Boston of this dance routine soon spread like wildfire across the nation. In 1872, she was one of the headliners performing in a western drama, Scouts of the Prairie. Also in the show were two well-known popular pioneers of the west, Buffalo Bill Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro. She and Jack were married a year later and bought a home in Lowell, Massachusetts, where she lived until she passed away in 1886.

Rosa Segale (1847 to 1938), better known as Sister Blandina, was born in Cicagna, Italy and moved with her family to Cincinnati, Ohio at the age of four. At age 16, Rosa and her sister Maria entered the Sisters of Charity convent and took their vows. Rosa became Sister Blandina and Maria became Sister Justina. In 1869, she was sent alone as a missionary to the frontier mining town of Trinidad, Colorado. One of her first battles was to try and stop the practice of lynching as a form of justice. She came into contact and ministered to many outlaws, including Billy the Kid. In 1873, Sister Blandina received orders from her Mother Superior to move on to Santa Fe. There she helped in the building of schools and orphanages and gathered funds for the construction of St. Vincent Hospital. After decades teaching and ministering to the sick and indigent, in 1931, Sister Blandina returned to Rome to champion the cause of sainthood for Mother Elizabeth Seton, the founder of the Sisters of Charity. Sister Blandina died ten years later at the age of ninety one. Much of her life story was also told in the letters she exchanged with her sister, published in Italy in the mid-1990s under the title” An Italian Nun in the West.”

Ida Baccini, educator, writer and journalist (1850 to 1911), was born in Florence, Italy. She married Livornese sculptor Vincenzo Cerri in 1868 and soon after received her teaching degree and became an elementary school teacher in the town of Rifredi. In 1875, Baccini had her first book published in Florence, a children’s story named La Memoria di un Pulcino, “The Memoirs of a Baby Chick.”  This first edition, published anonymously was a success and she followed it up with a second edition penned under her name. Meanwhile, she started a career in journalism, working for two newspapers, “The Watchtower” and “The Nation” in Florence. By the late 1800s, she had achieved significant recognition as a journalist. In 1887, she was afflicted with a nerve disease which made work difficult, so she returned to writing children’s books and had a successful series published anonymously. She died in Florence on February 28, 1911.

Eleonora Duse (1858-1924), was an international star of the stage. She was born in Vigevano, Lombardy, Italy in 1858 and began acting as a child. Both her father and her grandfather were actors and she joined their troupe at age four. She came to fame in Italian versions of roles made famous by Sarah Bernhardt. She gained her first major success in Europe, then toured the United States. By the 1880s, her career was in full swing and her popularity began to climb. In 1896, Duse conducted a tour in the U.S., each performance was attended by President Grover Cleveland and his wife. On July 30, 1923, she became the first woman ever to be featured on the cover of Time Magazine.

Rosina Ferrara (1861 to 1934), was known as the Muse of Artists. She was a beautiful young girl from the island of Capri, Italy. The island was frequented by famous artists and writers, drawn to its climate and magnificent scenery. At the age of 14, Rosina’s exotic looks brought her to the attention of the French artist Chatran. She became a model for Edward Vaux and then the British artist Frank Hyde. In 1878, John Singer Sargent arrived in Capri. Born in Florence, Italy to American parents, Sargent was the most successful portrait painter of his era. Rosina became his muse; he painted her at least twelve times during his year’s stay on the island. She was featured in “Dans Les Olivier,” “Head of an Anacapri Girl,” “View of Capri” and “Rosina,” among others. Ferrara left the art world her legacy in the form of paintings and sketches along with the interest she inspired in Capri and in the works of Sargent. She is mentioned in several of the publications on Sargent and can be seen in many exhibitions in museums and galleries around the world.

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986). The Italian heritage of brilliant painter Georgia O’Keeffe is not a widely-known fact, though she was named for her grandfather, Giorgio Totto. She was encouraged to study art from a young age and in 1905 enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago. She received her break in 1916 when photographer Alfred Stieglitz displayed ten of her drawings in an exhibit. The two eventually married. Two O’Keeffe retrospectives took place in the 1940s – the first at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1943 and the second at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan in 1946 (a first for a woman painter). She was the recipient of many awards and honors and passed away at aged 98 in 1986.

Rosina Ferrario (1888-1959), was born on to a wealthy Milanese family. Unheard for women of the time, she enrolled in the Caproni Flying School and earned her pilot’s license in 1913. Ferrario thus became Italy’s first woman pilot. During World War I, Ferrario petitioned to organize a “Women Aviators Volunteer Squadron” to retrieve wounded soldiers from the battlefields, but her idea was refuted by the Italian High Command, stating that women could not be subjected to such danger. 

Elsa Schiaparelli (1890–1973), was born at the Palazzo Corsini, Rome. A fashion designer, she was one of the first designers to develop the wrap dress and produce a design that would accommodate and flatter all female body types. She is regarded as one of the most prominent figures in fashion between the two World Wars. Schiaparelli’s designs were heavily influenced by Surrealists like her collaborators Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau.

Maria Teresa Cafarelli de Francisci (1898-1990), was the model for the Miss Liberty coins. During the 1920s and 1930s, one-dollar silver coins could be found in circulation bearing the image of “Miss Liberty” engraved upon them. Maria Teresa Cafarelli, a Neapolitan-born beauty, served as the model which was designed by her husband, Antonio de Francisci, an artist originally from Palermo, who could not afford to hire a model in order to engrave the coin.

Frances Winwar (Francesca Vinciguerra) (1900 to 1985), was an American biographer, translator, fiction writer. She was born in Taormina, Sicily. By the age of eight she had mastered the English language and demonstrated an aptitude for writing. She immigrated to the U.S. with her family in 1908 and continued her language and writing studies. As a young adult she became a sought after book reviewer, translator, novelist and biographer. At the suggestion of her editor she anglicized her name to Frances Winwar prior to the publication of her first book. Francesca wrote many romantic novels including “Gallows Hill” (1937), a story about the Salem witchcraft trials. She then went on to write many other popular and lively biographies on a host of personages. In 1933, “Poor Splendid Wings” (about the Pre-Raphaelites) was published followed in 1935 with the publication of “The Romantic Rebels,” a biography about Byron, Shelley and Keats. Other successes include “Oscar Wilde and the Yellow Nineties” (1940); “American Giant: Walt Whitman and His Times” (1941); “The Haunted Palace” (1959), about Edgar Allen Poe and “Conscience of an Era, Jean-Jacques Rousseau” (1961). She also penned “Immortal Lovers,” a biography of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. Winwar had a gift for masterfully weaving factual material with her own imagination to recreate the lives of legendary figures who lived in very intriguing and amazing times.

Anna Maria Enriques Agnoletti (1907-1944), was born in the city of Bologna and spent much of her childhood moving between Naples, Sassari and Florence, due to her father’s career as a professor. She studied medieval history and after graduating, worked for the State Archives of Florence. In 1943, Agnoletti became an advocate for the Christian Socialist Movement of Italy and later became a member of the anti-fascist ‘Partito d’Azione,’ or the Action Party of Tuscany. She was arrested in 1944 by a Fascist officer who was posing as a member of the Christian Socialist Party. She was jailed, interrogated and tortured, but refused to give up any information about her comrades. On June 12, Agnoletti was shot and killed in the little town of Cercina, Florence. She was later made a posthumous recipient of the Gold Medal of Military Valor for her work and courage.