Thursday, February 1, 2018

Pina Menichetti, Italian Divas and Testaroli with Pesto

A few weeks ago while researching the great Italian chef, Pelligrino Artusi (who I wrote about HERE), I came upon an image that burrowed into my consciousness, took hold and wouldn't let go. I realized I had to explore the possession to be free of it.

The image was the face of Pina Menichelli - one of the great divas of early Italian cinema. Early? I mean early. Her heyday was 1913-1924 when she retired at age 34. I watched her films in their tinted glory, translating the Italian title cards as best I could but not needing them most of the time -- the emotions were simple and powerful and the stories were secondary – she devoured your attention when she was on the screen.

Il Fuoco

The whole concept of the Diva is remarkably apt in these days of growing female empowerment. Menichelli was a dark queen during the shimmering youth of the silent film

I learned much about the infancy of Italian cinema from the passionate silent film aficionado, Gene Zornarich, at 11 East 14th Street  (a brilliant site named after D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Studio in NYC at the dawn of American cinema in 1906). Even though many assume that the femme fatale was born in celluloid, the powerful seductress has been emasculating powerful men since the beginning of time. The cinema diva-femme fatale was a new version of an ancient archetype.

The whole idea of female empowerment is part of the definition of the Diva. Zonarich writes “The diva as a concept arises with the support of popular late 19th century western philosophy which posits the existence of human ability to create, to reinvent, to overcome — a life force that allows one to shape ones own destiny no matter what the obstacles. But for women, this concept clashed not only with centuries of patriarchy, but also with contemporary writings of Italian criminal anthropology — that women were biologically inferior and limited without recourse to be either a mother or a prostitute and a criminal. The Catholic church offered women its own form of spiritual redemption, but small consolation: to suffer as mothers suffering for Christ — the mater dolorosa  ….”

“Out of this clash of cultural concepts, the woman of early Italian cinema became the film icon, “diva.” The stories of these women, of diva film, are the stories of their struggles, strivings, failures, successes, loves, illnesses, obsessions with material objects, their ability to accept, or not, the destruction caused by time: age and death.”

Pina Menichelli started out with a female-run theater company,  under the wing of a strong professional role model (female-run theater companies popped up in Europe, England and even America -- Drew Barrymore's great grandmother ran a theater in Philadelphia). Menichelli gravitated toward playing women who were strong –– not the usual virtuous doormat or frail beauty to be ground under a male heel. The femme fatales that divas often played took men, had their way with them, and then tossed them away. If the men survived they were broken. It was the woman that walked away triumphant and ready to move on to the next victim lover. The diva was independent and sexually rapacious. I wonder how many women of the day got a vicarious thrill watching films that were full of such potent possibilities for women? These films, like Tigre Reale and Il Fuoco were very popular all over the world.

Pina exemplified the femme fatale –– “La favilla, la vampa, la cenere,” “the spark, the flame, the ashes” as the title card says in one of her films –– the passion that burns and destroys. Is it a coincidence that the concept of the 'vamp' may be related to the Italian word, vampa meaning  flame as much as it is to the word vampire as we have often heard it defined? America's most famous vamp Theda Bara chose 'vampire' and once said "I will continue doing vampires as long as people sin." One burns, the other sucks the life out of their victims.  Which do you prefer?

I had great fun reading many writers and artists thoughts about the diva-femme fatale.  Often wry, but very entertaining. They almost always reference Pina's work.

The famous French author Colette, writing about the femme fatale in film in her work, Short Manual for the Aspiring Scenario Writer, drolly observed: "The femme fatale's hat spares her the necessity, at the absolute apex of her wicked career, of having to expend herself in pantomime. When the spectator sees the evil woman coiffing herself with a spread-winged owl, the head of a stuffed jaguar, a bifid aigrette, or a hairy spider, he no longer has any doubts; he knows just what she is capable of. And the rising gorge? The rising gorge is the imposing and ultimate means by which the evil woman informs the audience that she is about to weep, that she is hesitating on the brink of crime, that she is struggling against steely necessity, or that the police have gotten their hands on the letter. What letter? THE letter.”

These dramas were sometimes referred to as being 'tailcoat cinema' meaning they were about the upper classes.  The women of this class were in many ways given far more room to maneuver in society than their counterparts in the middle and lower classes.  Having lovers was part of the game and, then as now,  money and power often protected society ladies from the fallout. Women who did not belong to those elevated circles were fascinated by them (and secretly wished to emulate them perhaps?).

Eugenia Paulicelli, in the book, Italian Style, said Menichelli appeared ‘naked in full dress’, and that she represented “ the other woman, the seductress, the femme fatale on the verge of becoming a vamp, an antagonistic specter to the apparent bourgeois order. Once again, clothing and costume play a pivotal role in the way her erotic charge is conveyed and constructed.”

In an interview in the periodical, In Penombra in 1918, “Menichilli acknowledges the role played by the direttore di scena (set designer) in the meticulous construction of her image…. Film, she says, is the result of a collective effort; the diva is the beneficiary of this effort as well as being part of it.” In the same magazine, the director and writer, Nino Oxilia, reflected,  “from the marriage of storytelling and painting, cinema is born.” You can feel that evolution happening before your eyes.  First, the scene opens,  playing in a flat, two-dimensional plane.  Suddenly,  Pina changes the dynamic, using the close-up to reel you in ––to feel her passion.  It's no longer a stiff tableau!

Il Fuoco

Even her coiffure was designed to convey her intent as the curls were loosely bound or released with the pulling of a comb to flow wildly about her, “Everything came from her crown of hair, that was a pure masterpiece: a Gorgon’s mane, serpents of hysteria, curls of pathos, desire and madness intertwined. Monstrous adornments of a crowded garden: all around Pina Menichelli, Our Lady of Spasms ['Notre Dame des Spasmes' or Nostra Signora degli Spasimi] . . .” (Nino Frank, Cinema dell’arte. Panorama du film italien, Paris, Bonne, 1951.)

Many have been obsessed with the idea of the diva. In Salvador Dali’s surreal script,  Babaouo, there is a preface entitled, The Age of Hysterical Cinema” (words from the preface translated by Gene Zornarich) Dali confesses his own obsessions with them, fixating on Menichelli's manifestation of her sexual desire through nuzzling, then biting into her flowers....

Tigre Reale

“I recall those women frantic and wobbly of step, their hands caressing the castaways of their love down the corridor walls, clinging to the curtains and plants, those women of the screen, whose neckline slipped continuously over bare shoulders, in an endless night among cypress and marble staircases.”

Tigre Reale

“At that critical and turbulent period of eroticism, palms and magnolias were literally taken in bites, torn with their teeth by these women, whose fragile and pre-tubercular appearance did not preclude, however, their audacious shapes thriving on a precocious and feverish youth.”

Tigre Reale

J.K. Huysmans precedes cinema's femme fatale diva by 20 years but captures the throbbing spasms of the ‘goddess of immortal Hysteria’ Salomé beautifully in his essay Sisters of Salomé.  Salomé and the 19th century evocations of her are the great progenitors of the femme fatale diva of the 20th century.

“No longer was she merely the dancing-girl who extorts a cry of lust and concupiscence from an old man by the lascivious contortions of her body; who breaks the will, masters the mind of a King by the spectacle of her quivering bosoms, heaving belly and tossing thighs; she was now revealed in a sense as the symbolic incarnation of world-old Vice, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, the Curse of Beauty supreme above all other beauties by the cataleptic spasm that stirs her flesh and steels her muscles, – a monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning.”
— Joris-Karl Huysmans, À rebours, Sisters of Salomé 1884

Il Fuoco
Menichelli was all these things on screen which is why her nitrate-self will always be the stuff of legend --  you can't look away when she is on the screen –– no matter what indiscretion she is up to or how explosive her acting becomes.

But who was she?

Not surprisingly, given the fact that most of what was written about her 100 years ago is stored in European libraries and not in easily accessible databases, only the bare facts of her private life are there for us to rummage through.

Born in 1890, Pina came from a Sicilian theatrical family tradition dating back to the 18th century. She began acting as a child but was sent to a convent school in Bologna to get an education.  She continued in the family tradition after school and went off on a theatrical tour of Argentina in 1907 where she met her first husband.  Beginning in 1909, she lived in Buenos Aires and had 2 children, one of whom died soon after his birth. She returned to Italy in 1912 to give birth to her 3rd child  -- separating from, but not divorcing her husband.

Her career took off like a rocket and within a few years she attained her diva status. A dozen years later, when her first husband died in 1924, she married studio head Baron Carlo D'Amato and quit working just like that. She never went back, didn’t like to talk about her life on screen, destroyed her memorabilia and lived to the ripe old age of 94.

scene from The Second Wife 1922

For a dozen years she was the premiere Italian diva.  I think the world is ready to rediscover her once again.

I tried to imagine what scent might surround a diva in 1915 and my friend and perfume scholar, Lucy Raubertas at Indieperfumes recommended two early 20th century gems (you can get vintage samples of them from Surrender to Chance). She recommended  Rosine Nuit de Chine Eau de Cologne by Paul Poiret in 1913 (The New Yorker in 1932 said it was for tigress women!) or Caron's 1919 Tabac Blond to get you in the mood.  Apply your scent, then watch and see if you agree she is one of the lost immortal divas of the silver screen.

So what do we eat with a diva?? How about something ancient from around the neighborhood of her old studio, Itala Films of Turin  ?

I have wanted to make testaroli for years. It is an ancient pasta that goes all the way back to the Etruscans (their domain was located around the knee and the shin of the Italian boot) before Christ.  The way this pasta is made is a bit different than we are used to. The foundation is not a dough but rather a batter that is cooked like a crepe on a flat round pan called a testo. A lid is then placed on it for a few moments and then it’s flipped and removed and cooled. There are records of a tax on the testo in 1391 and again in 1564 – this is a dish with history.

The round pancake is cut into triangles or diamonds and served crisp immediately or cooked a bit less and cooled and boiled for a few moments before being served like a regular pasta – usually with a pesto sauce these days but perhaps only with oil and cheese. I made the pesto old school with the mortar and pestle and it really is creamier and more luscious than using a processor if you are willing to put in the time and the muscle. The pancake can also be kept whole and used to make a sort of lasagna – especially a version with wild boar or venison. It has been called the first pasta.

Make your testaroli, turn on  Il Fuoco and devour orgiastically -- it's a very voluptuous pasta, if I may say. Pina would approve.

Testaroli for 2-4

250 grams of flour (I did a combination of whole wheat, AP flour and semolina)
1½ to 2 c water (this can vary with the dryness of the flour – start with less and add as needed)
1/8 t. baking powder
pinch of salt

Combine the ingredients and then pour through a strainer to get rid of lumps and any large bits of whole wheat – it should have the consistency of cream –– or a crepe batter. Allow the mixture to sit for 20 minutes

Heat a cast iron or non-stick skillet to medium heat (texture might be different with non-stick). Oil the skillet and use a ladle to pour enough batter in the skillet to make it about 1/8 to ¼” deep -- this is sort of up to you as what appeals to you. I'd say it's like a fat crepe or a thin pancake.  Allow it to cook till the underside is lightly browned and then flip it - it will be textured on the bottom. The whole thing shouldn’t take more than 8 minutes. Remove from pan and place on a towel. Then repeat, oiling in between until all the batter is used (I made 4 - 9 to10" pancakes).

Take the pancakes and cut them into diamond shapes anywhere from 1-2” wide. Boil a big pot of salted water and remove from the heat. Put the testaroli pieces in the pot for 1-2 minutes -- you should experiment and decide what you prefer (I went for 2 minutes).  Strain and serve with pesto or simple oil and cheese.  May I say it was also good as a brown crusted pancake -- like the texture of a fried dumpling and great smeared with pesto.


½ teaspoon coarse salt
2 cloves garlic, smashed
2 cups fresh basil leaves
¼ cup pine nuts
½ cup olive oil
1/3 cup grated Parmesan

Put the salt in a mortar with the garlic. Grind to a paste. Add the basil leaves and grind with the garlic-salt until smooth. Next add the pine nuts and grind to a paste. Add your olive oil to this paste, continuing to grind with the pestle and then the Parmesan the same way and set aside.

If you do not want to bother with a mortar, put the garlic and pine nuts in a food processor with salt and process. Next add the basil and process. Add the oil to the mix and then the cheese and give it a quick process and set aside.

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Diane said...

I have never heard of Pina so I thoroughly enjoyed this post and found it very educational as well. I love the sound of the Testaroli, I might just be convinced enough to try it out for myself :-)
Hope this finds you well, have a good weekend which is just around the corner. Diane

Parnassus said...

Hello Deana, I love silent screen vamps, so was happy to learn about Menichelli, and will look forward to seeing her movies.

The testaroli sound good; I plan to experiment with them. The Chinese have a thin onion pancake (cong you bing) which in the past I have fried, cut up, then cooked sort of as dumplings with chicken and vegetables in my own version of hui fan. My local friends liked it, but I think that the testaroli will be more delicate in nature, as well as healthier.