By Martina Bollini

Actress Eleonora Duse was born on 3 October 1858 in Vigevano (Lombardy). Regarded as one of the greatest actors of all time, Duse was often portrayed by Italian artists.

Born of a family of actors, Duse made her first stage appearance at the age of four, as Cosette from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. With her parents, she moved from one company to another for her entire childhood. At the age of 20, her fame was already established. In the following years she gained worldwide fame and toured throughout Europe as well as the United States and South America.

Duse had a famous rival in French actress Sarah Bernhardt, despite their acting style was very different. Duse opposed intense naturalness to stage effect, sympathetic force or poignant intellectuality to theatrical emotionalism.

Among her many lovers was Gabriele D’Annunzio, whom Duse met in 1895. At the time, D’Annunzio was a rising young poet. He wrote for her several plays, including La Città morta (1898) and Francesca da Rimini (1901). In his novel Il fuoco (1900, The Flame of Life), D’Annunzio told a fictionalized account of their love.

In 1909, at 46, Duse quit the stage, mainly for health issues, but she started acting again in the 1920s. In 1923 she embarked on her last tour, in the United States. after performing in Pittsburgh, Duse fell ill and died on 21 April 1924. Her body was taken back to Italy and was buried in the cemetery of Asolo.

Reference: F. Taviani, DUSE, Eleonora, in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, vol. 42 (1993).

Further reading: H. Sheehy, Eleonora Duse: A Biography, 2003.

Eleonora Duse.

Vittorio Matteo Corcos, Portrait of Eleonora Duse, Christie’s.

Michele Gordigiani, Portrait of Eleonora Duse, 1893-94, Roman, Teatro del Burcardo.

Elenora Duse as Francesca da Rimini.

Eduardo Gordigiani, Portrait of Eleonora Duse, c. 1890, Venice, Fondazione Giorgio Cini.

Arrigo Minerbi, Bust of Eleonora Duse, 1927, Milan, Museo della Scala.  

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