19th Century Actor Autobiographies
By George Iles, Editor

Presented by

Public Domain Books

Adelaide Ristori

[George Henry Lewes, in his book on “Actors and the Art of Acting," published by Henry Holt & Co., New York, 1878, says:

“I must repeat the expression of my admiration for Ristori as a distinguished actress; if not of the highest rank, she is very high, in virtue of her personal gifts, and the trained skill with which these gifts are applied. The question naturally arises, why is her success so great in certain plays and so dubious in others? It is of little use to say that Lady Macbeth and Adrienne Lecouvreur are beyond her powers; that is only restating the fact. Can we not trace both success and failure to one source? In what is called the ideal drama, constructed after the Greek type, she would be generally successful, because the simplicity of its motives and the artificiality of its structure, removing it from beyond the region of ordinary experience, demand from the actor a corresponding artificiality. Attitudes, draperies, gestures, tones, and elocution which would be incongruous in a drama approaching more closely to the evolutions of ordinary experience, become, in the ideal drama, artistic modes of expression; and it is in these that Ristori displays a fine selective instinct, and a rare felicity of organisation.”

“Memoirs and Artistic Studies of Adelaide Ristori,” rendered into English by G. Mantellini, with a biographical appendix by L. D. Ventura, was published and copyrighted by Doubleday, Page & Co., New York, 1907. The chapters of that volume afford the pages which follow. The Artistic Studies comprise detailed histrionic interpretations of the chief roles of Ristori: Mary Stuart, Queen Elizabeth, Lady Macbeth, Medea, Myrrha and Phedra.–ED.]

First Appearances

WHEN twelve years old, I was booked with the famous actor and manager, Giuseppe Moncalvo, for the roles of a child. Soon after, owing to my slender figure, they made me up as a little woman, giving me small parts as maid. But they soon made up their minds that I was not fitted for such parts. Having reached the age of thirteen and developed in my figure, I was assigned several parts as second lady. In those days they could not be too particular in small companies. At the age of fourteen, I had to recite the first part among the young girls and that of the leading lady alternately, like an experienced actress. It was about this time, in the city of Novara (Piedmont) that I recited for the first time the “Francesca da Rimini” of Silvio Pellico. Though I was only fifteen my success was such that soon afterward they offered me the parts of leading lady with encouragement of advancement.

My good father, who was gifted with a great deal of sense, did not allow his head to be turned by such offers. Reflecting that my health might suffer from being thrown so early into the difficulties of stage life he refused these offers and accepted a more modest place, as ingenue, in the Royal Company, under the auspices of the King of Sardinia and stationed during several months of the year at Turin. It was managed by the leading man, the most intelligent and capable among the stage managers of the time. The advice of this cultured, though severe man, rendered his management noteworthy and sought after as essential to the making of a good actor.

Among the members of the company shone the foremost beacon-lights of Italian art, such as Vestri, Madame Marchionni, Romagnoli, Righetti, and many others who were quoted as examples of dramatic art, as well as Pasta, Malibran, Rubini, and Tamburini in the lyric art,

My engagement for the part of ingenue was to have lasted three years, but, after the year, I was promoted to the parts of the first lady, and in the third year, to the absolute leading lady.

To such unhoped-for and flattering results I was able to attain, by ascending step by step through the encouragement and admonition of my excellent teacher, Madame Carlotta Marchionni, a distinguished actress, and the interest of Gaetano Bazzi who also had great affection for me. It was really then that my artistic education began. It was then that I acquired the knowledge and the rules which placed me in a position to discern the characteristics of a true artist. I learned to distinguish and to delineate the comic and the dramatic passions. My temperament caused me to incline greatly toward the tender and the gentle.

However, in the tragic parts, my vigour increased. I learned to portray transitions for the sake of fusing the different contrasts; a capital but difficult study of detail, tedious at times, but of the greatest importance. The lamentations in a part where two extreme and opposing passions are at play, are like those which in painting are called “chiaro-oscuro,” a blending of the tones, which thus portrays truth devoid of artifice.

In order to succeed in this intent, it is necessary to take as model the great culture of art, and also to be gifted with a well-tempered and artistic nature. And these are not to be confined to sterile imitation, but are for the purpose of accumulating the rich material of dramatic erudition, so that one may present oneself before the audiences as an original and artistic individuality.

Some people think that distinction of birth and a perfect education will render them capable of appearing upon the stage with the same facility and nonchalance with which one enters a ball-room, and they are not at all timid about walking upon the boards, presuming that they can do it as well as an actor who has been raised upon them. A great error!

One of the greatest difficulties that they meet is in not knowing how to walk upon a stage, which, owing to the slight inclination in con struction, easily causes the feet to totter, particularly if one is a beginner, and especially at the entrances and exits. I myself encountered this difficulty. Though I had dedicated myself to the art from my infancy and had been instructed with the greatest care every day of my life by my grandmother, at the age of fifteen my movements had not yet acquired all the ease and naturalness necessary to make me feel at home upon the stage, and certain sudden turns always frightened me.

When I began my artistic apprenticeship, the use of diction was given great importance, as a means of judging an actor. At that time the audience was critical and severe.

In our days, the same audience has become less exacting, less critical, and does not aim to improve the artist, by counting his defects. According to my opinion, the old system was best, as it is not in excessive indulgence and solely by considering the good qualities, without correcting the bad ones, that real artists are made.

It is also my conviction that a person who wishes to dedicate himself to the stage should not begin his career with parts of great importance, either comic, dramatic, or tragic. The interpretation becomes too difficult for a beginner and may harm his future career: first, the discouragement over the difficulties that he meets; secondly, an excessive vanity caused by the appreciation with which the public apparently honours him. Both these sentiments will lead the actor, in a short time, to neglect his study. On the other hand, by taking several parts, he becomes familiar with the means of rendering his part natural, thus convincing himself that by representing correctly characters of little importance, he will be given more important ones later on. Thus it will come about that his study will be more careful.

Salvini and Rossi

One of the greatest of the living examples of the school of realism is my illustrious fellow artist, Signor Tommaso Salvini, with whom, for a number of years, I had the fortune to share the fatigues and the honours of the profession which I also shared with Ernesto Rossi. The former was and is still admired. His rare dramatic merits have nothing of the conventional, but owe their power to that spontaneity which is the most convincing revelation of art. The wealth of plasticity which Salvini possesses, is in him, a natural gift. Salvini is the true exponent of the Italian dramatic art

Appears as Lady Macbeth

In the month of June, 1857, we began to rerehearse “Macbeth,” at Covent Garden, London, It had been arranged for our company by Mr. Clarke, and translated into most beautiful Italian verse by Giulio Carcano. The renowned Mr. Harris put it on the stage according to English traditions. The representation of the part of Lady Macbeth, which afterward became one of my favourite roles, preoccupied me greatly, as I knew only too well what kind of comparisons would be made. The remembrance of the marvellous creation of that character as given by the famous Mrs. Siddons and the traditional criticisms of the press, might have rendered the public very severe and difficult to please.

I used all my ability of interpretation to reveal and transmit the most minute intentions of the author. To the English audience it seemed that I had really incarnated that perfidious but great character of Lady Macbeth, in a way that surpassed all expectations.

We had to repeat the drama for several evenings, always producing a most profound impression upon the minds of the audience, particularly in the grand sleep-walking scene. So thoroughly had I entered into the nature of Lady Macbeth, that during the entire scene my pupils were motionless in their orbit, causing me to shed tears. To this enforced immobility of the eye I owe the weakening of my eyesight. From the analytical study which I shall give of this diabolical character [at the close of her Memoirs] the reader can form for himself an idea of how much its interpretation cost me (particularly in the final culminating scene), in my endeavour to get the right intonation of the voice and the true expression of the physiognomy.

As Manager

My exceptionally good health never abandoned me through my long and tiresome journeys, though unfortunately I never was able to accustom myself to voyaging by sea. All through those rapid changes I acquired a marvellous store of endurance. That sort of life infused in me sufficient energy to lead me through every kind of hardship with the resolution and authority of a commanding general. All obeyed me. None questioned my authority owing to my absolute impartiality, being always ready, as I was, either to blame or correct him who did not fulfil his obligations, also to praise without any distinction of class those who deserved it. I almost always met with courtesy among the actors under my direction, and if any one of them dared to trouble our harmony, he was instantly put to his proper place by the firmness of my discipline.

The artistic management of the plays was left to me in all its details. Every order and every disposition came from me directly. I looked after all matters large and small, the things that every actor understands contribute to making the success of a play.

Concerning my own personal interests, they were in charge of a private manager.

I am proud to say that my husband was the soul of all my undertakings. As I speak of him, my heart impels me to say that he ever exercised upon me and my professional career the kindest and most benevolent influence. It was he who upheld my courage, whenever I hesitated before some difficulty; it was he who foretold the glory I should acquire, he who pointed out to me the goal, and anticipated everything in order that I should secure it. Without his assistance I never should have been able to put into effect the daring attempt of carrying the flag of Italian dramatic art all over the globe.

First Visit to America

During the month of September, 1866, for the first time in my life, I crossed the ocean on my way to the United States, where I remained until May 17th of the following year. It was in the elegant Lyceum Theatre of New York that I made my debut, on the 20th of September, with “Medea.” I could not anticipate a more enthusiastic reception than the one I was honoured with. I felt anxious to make myself known in that new part of the world, and let the Americans hear me recite for the first time, in the soft and melodic Italian language. I knew that in spite of the prevailing characteristics of the inhabitants of the free country of George Washington, always busy as they are in their feverish pursuit of wealth, that the love for the beautiful and admiration for dramatic art were not neglected. During my first season in New York I met with an increasing success, and formed such friendly relations with many distinguished and cultured people that time and distance have never caused me to forget them. While writing these lines I send an affectionate salutation to all those who in America still honour me with their remembrance.

Begins to Play in English

I made my fourth trip to London in 1873. Not having any new drama to present and being tired of repeating the same productions, I felt the necessity of reanimating my mind with some strong emotion, of discovering something, in a word, the execution of which had never been attempted by others.

At last I believed I had found something to satisfy my desire. The admiration I had for the Shakespearean dramas, and particularly for the character of Lady Macbeth, inspired me with the idea of playing in English the sleeping scene from “Macbeth,” which I think is the greatest conception of the Titanic poet. I was also induced to make this bold attempt, partly as a tribute of gratitude to the English audiences of the great metropolis, who had shown me so much deference. But how was I going to succeed? ... I took advice from a good friend of mine, Mrs. Ward, the mother of the renowned actress Genevieve Ward. She not only encouraged my idea, but offered her services in helping me to learn how to recite that scene in English.

I still had some remembrance of my study of English when I was a girl, and there is no language more difficult to pronounce and enunciate correctly, for an Italian. I was frightened only to think of that, still I drew sufficient courage even from its difficulties to grapple with my task. After a fortnight of constant study, I found myself ready to make an attempt at my recitation. However, not wishing to compromise my reputation by risking a failure, I acted very cautiously.

I invited to my house the most competent among the dramatic critics of the London papers, without forewarning them of the object and asked them kindly to hear me and express frankly their opinion, assuring them that if it should not be a favourable one, I would not feel badly over it.

I then recited the scene in English, and my judges seemed to be very much pleased. They corrected my pronunciation of two words only, and encouraged me to announce publicly my bold project. The evening of the performance, at the approach of that important scene, I was trembling! ... The enthusiastic reception granted me by the audience awakened in me all vigour, and the happy success of my effort compensated me a thousandfold for all the anxieties I had gone through. This success still increased my ambitious aspirations, and I wished to try myself in even a greater task.

I aimed at no less a project than the impersonation of the entire role of Lady Macbeth in English, but such an arduous undertaking seemed so bold to me that I finally gave up the idea and drove away from my mind forever the temptation to try it.


His was the spell o’er hearts
Which only Acting lends–
The youngest of the sister arts,
Which all their beauty blends:
For ill can Poetry express
Full many a tone of thought sublime,
And Painting, mute and motionless,
Steals but a glance of time,
But by the mighty actor brought,
Illusion’s perfect triumphs come–
Verse ceases to be airy thought,
And Sculpture to be dumb.

[1] This took the form as “The Players"; its home, 16 Grammercy Park, New York, was a gift from Mr. Booth. It had long been his residence, and there he passed away.
[2] The late Professor Peirce, professor of mathematics in Harvard University, father of Professor James Mills Peirce.


Preface  •  Joseph Jefferson  •  Edwin Booth  •  Charlotte Cushman  •  Clara Morris  •  Sir Henry Irving  •  Henry Brodribb Irving  •  Ellen Terry  •  Richard Mansfield  •  Tommaso Salvini  •  Adelaide Ristori  • 

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