Fantasia ‘e surdato
Fantasia ‘e surdato

By Rossella Scalia.

My first encounter with the director Elvira Notari occurred randomly, as almost always happens with important meetings. I had never heard of her nor of her many works, although I spent about thirty years of my life in Italy. The fascist censorship has drastically affected the legacy of Italian silent cinema. But during an online conference with Professor Giuliana Bruno, the name of Elvira Notari and her story opened a drawer in my mind, and my curiosity did the rest.

My studies of psychogeography, which began in London, led me to find a connection with what I had just heard. I was perfectly aware that the development of this subject had always been tied to the two major European cities of Paris and London, but that did not stop my desire to apply it in an Italian context.

The National Film Archive of Rome gave me the opportunity to see three of the sixty feature films that Notari made during the early twentieth century; È piccerella (1922), ‘A Santanotte (1922), and Fantasia ‘e surdato (1927). My dérive into her world thus began.

Elvira Notari with her husband, cameraman and partner in Dora Film, Nicola Notari.
Elvira Notari with her husband, cameraman and partner in Dora Film, Nicola Notari.

Elvira Notari (1875-1946) was the first Italian woman to create a family film production company, called Dora Film (1903 – 1930). The story began in Naples, the city where the director spent most of her life and that, aided by her husband and children, inspired her to such an extent that she could not resist the impulse to communicate that world through cinema.

Naples was at that time a “plebeian metropolis,” as it was defined by Pier Paolo Pasolini – a city full of contradictions, in which wealth and poverty were separated only by a vicolo (an alley), where ignorance clashed with culture, where morality was attacked by crime and vice, where appearance covered reality (Pasolini 1976: 17).

In the resentful words of Matilde Serao, an Italian writer and journalist who lived in Naples at the time when Elvira Notari was filming the city, the frenzy of the city, the din, the movement, the pomposity, the degradation, become perceivable. What characterizes Naples is excess.

Criticising the settlement plan implemented by the authorities of Naples due to numerous cholera epidemics, caused by the unsanitary conditions in which people lived, Matilde Serao used the term paravento (screen) to define the function of the arterial road (the Rettifilo) which cut in two the belly of Naples; a poor and stinky Naples, a shame in the opencast, was hidden behind a screen unimproved:

“Moving into the Rettifilo, the eye a bit distracted, a somewhat tired traveler, passing quickly, ends up having a sense of admiration for the width of this street, for its design, that up to a certain point is beautiful.

[—] The Rettifilo has a majestic line, its whole affects the view especially if , crossing it quickly, looking without analyzing excessively, you do not notice the varied ugliness of the many new buildings that have sprung up, their different colors, some rowdy, the clumsy and pretentious ornamentation of some of them: this, however, is unfortunately a common evil to many other beautiful Italian cities, where alongside the ancient splendor and deep elegance of taste, modern architects have elevated monuments to their complete ignorance and their complete lack of aesthetic sense.

 [—] The mighty Neapolitan artery flows, at every hour, with bright blood: a crowd constantly moves along the Rettifilo, on foot, by carriage, by tram […]. A Crowd of all sorts, sometimes a crowd of elegant people, well dressed, men with the gold chain on their waistcoat, women with pendants hanging on their chest.

[—] Ah, that is simply a screen, but a slight, weak and coarse screen, a screen that does not hide anything from those who want to know everything, all that is behind it, of misery and horror!” (Serao 2008: 35-36)

È piccerella
È piccerella

Elvira Notari was a proponent of the world that lived behind the screen. Her stories are passionate dramas, part of a series defined by her as grandi lavori popolari (“great popular works”); her characters were not professional actors but amateurs, and as such honest in their realism and authenticity, her scenes were not shot in a Cinecittà, but rather used the street as a natural stage, a stage made ​​of lights, crowds and shouting voices. The street was the place where the director found her best characters, it was the set of her stories, it was the element that attracted her and which she could not do without. The street represented a forbidden desire in her female world.

In 1859 Charles Baudelaire described the figure of the flaneur as a “modern hero” who lives hidden in the crowd, who observes it, traverses it, breathes it, discovers its essence, but who does not ever become part of it. The flaneur travels aimlessly just for the pleasure of traveling, of moving, of experiencing the surrounding stimuli, the moving images. He feels an irrepressible need to be swallowed by the fast-paced metropolitan game, where pleasures overlap desires.

Arcades are the perfect places for a flaneur, Walter Benjamin said in his Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism:

“Strolling could hardly have assumed the importance it did without the arcades […] It is in this world that the flaneur is at home […] The arcades were a cross between a street and an intérieur […] The street becomes a dwelling for the flaneur, he is as much at home among the facades of houses as a citizen is in his four walls.” (1973: 36-37)

A Fight in the Arcade
A Fight in the Arcade

An arcade is an undefined space, both internal and external, it is the place of modern public life, of encounters. It is a container of different social classes. Umberto Boccioni, in 1910, painted in detail the arcade’s atmosphere. In A Fight in the Arcade he highlighted the sensory stimulus that impacts the body in such an environment: a mixture of colours, of rapid and continuous movement, sounds, and the glow of lights. The crowd moves dynamically, a café in the background, the rhythmic succession of pillars, hats and wiggling clothes, arms that touch each other inadvertently, shouts. Elvira Notari may have experienced that destabilizing feeling, that only a flaneur can feel, while walking through Napoli’s Galleria Umberto I, opened in 1890.

The arcade was a place for shopping, leisure and culture; performances were held in the theatre, which was also the place where the first films were eventually projected. It soon became the center of public life in Naples.

“The Galleria Umberto I […] is the largest public space in the entire city. It is gigantic in its dimensions […]. The entrances are perpendicular to the lines of the street. One strolls unsuspectingly along Via Roma. A chance glance to the left, and the eye is overcome by the sudden revelation of the existence of this huge hidden space. The passerby does not have to be of a special religion or have a ticket to enter. The arcade belongs to everyone. It is a monumental expression of this most characteristic achievement of the nineteenth century, the public sphere.” (Geist 1983: 428-37)

It is an architecture in which natural light enters from above through large glass domes, in which the eye is always able to perceive the outside through views and projections, in which the air that comes from the sea creates the pleasant feeling of walking outdoors. The gallery also provides protection from outside, it is a built shell in which to escape and get lost.

È piccerella
È piccerella

There is not a clear separation between inside and outside in Naples’ city life. The city itself is also like a huge arcade, made up of streets and built environments, specifically homes; these two elements are independent but dependent on one another. The house is not the refuge in which to hide private life, on the contrary it is projected out into the street, which becomes almost a public lounge. Public and private have no boundaries.

“The ‘basso’ is a rudimentary workshop […] and as soon as spring comes, those who inhabit it, move into the street, onto the sidewalk, living in the doorway, on the threshold, occupying public land, with their children, with their kettles and stove for cooking, with their sewing machine, sometimes [the street] is also occupied by the stall of a cobbler, the stall of a chestnuts seller. Three, four, up to seven people sleep in the basso and on summer nights, two, three of them, sweltering, drag a pallet outside the door, put out a chair, or even lie down on the streets, sleeping in the open air.” (Serao 2008: 43)

È piccerella
È piccerella

The theme of interior/exterior and private/public is evident in Elvira Notari’s films. The protagonists of her melodramas always move from domestic places to courtyards, streets, squares and bars, in an ever-changing scene. In È piccerella the courtyard which overlooks Margaretella’s house, the young protagonist of the film, becomes the set of the love quarrel between Tore and Carluccio, both in love with her. The courtships, the passionate love, and in the end the shootout between the two rivals all take place in the courtyard, with the neighbors making up a personally involved audience, while Margaratella herself often watches the drama hidden behind a closed window.

The window is a recurring element in Notari’s films. Through the window plots are discovered, secrets overheard and serenades listened to; it is the place where Nanninella and Tore in ‘A Santanotte exchange love words. She looks out through the window from above, while he is standing below in the courtyard.

The position of the window changes with the moral values ​​of the protagonist of the film. In È piccerella the window is almost at the level of the courtyard and it offers easy access to anyone who wants to step in. Margaretella, the protagonist of the drama, is defined by the gossips as an evil genius, a bad thorn, ‘nfama (infamous), a slut. She is a woman who likes being courted and gives her attention to the highest bidder. The position of the window in which she appears is almost equal to that of the street. The woman who spends time in a public space, such as the street, is considered a cheap woman. The closer the window is to the road, the more obvious is her moral poverty.

Domestic space is feminine, public space is for men. Thus, the female protagonists of the films of Elvira Notari, who for various reasons spend time in public spaces, are often surrounded by men. In È piccerella the protagonist is a loose woman, in ‘A Santanotte and Fantasia ‘e surdato the protagonists are a waitress and a florist. Work was the only thing that opened the doors to the public space to a respectable proletarian woman. Thus, the window from which the waitress Nanninella is seen looking out, is placed higher than the street. Higher class women, as non-working, had no access to public space unless accompanied by their husbands.

The position of the window, therefore, symbolizes the general position of women in modern society. High, if away from the street and from the public, low, if close to it. These positions so defined are also evident in the scene of the Festa del Carmine (a major religious holiday in Naples) in È piccerella. A woman, dressed in her best clothes, leaves home and goes to watch the fireworks from the balcony of a friend. From her privileged position she looks down with derision on the table layed for the poor in the middle of the street.

Girls on the Balcony
Girls on the Balcony

The scene is reminiscent of a painting by Constantin Guys of 1860, called Girls on the Balcony. Guys was defined, by Baudelaire, as an authentic flaneur, capable of keen observations of everyday life, later transmuted into images. In the painting two young women, pompously dressed, look out from a balcony. One keeps her gaze straight ahead, afraid of the consequences of a mischievous look; the other, determined and self-confident, looks down without remorse, glancing at the street with desire.

On the Balcony
On the Balcony

Desire for a public life and female isolation from it, are the subject also of another painting named On the Balcony by Berthe Morisot (1872). In this case, the town looks like a distant and unattainable dream. The railing, like the bars of a prison, separate the two female figures from that public world so unknown to them and, as such, an object of desire. The male figure is absent in both paintings as it is supposed to be part of that forbidden world observed at a distance by women. The flaneur is a male figure, since only men could have access to public life, and therefore were the only ones able to wander aimlessly within the urban environment. The only women who move freely in public places are prostitutes.

The balcony, a space both internal and external, has the same status as the barred window that appears in all Elvira Notari’s three films. Often, in Notari’s films, an innocent male, through a fateful twist of events, ends up wrongfully imprisoned. The director focuses more than once on the image of a man who looks out through the bars of a prison window. His beloved woman suddenly appears to him in a dream and the desire to possess her again gives him the strength and the courage to break the constraints that keep him wrongfully imprisoned.

The domestic environment is like a prison for the filmmaker Elvira Notari and her desire’s object, which almost seems like a dream, is the city. The physical and instinctive pleasure experienced by the flaneur is comparable, according to Giuliana Bruno, to an erotic pleasure. It is an uncontrollable instinct that leads to continuous movement and that can be satisfied only by continuous changes of direction. The erotic and sensual woman is often also a character who moves freely in public spaces and who feels a physical need to explore the environment tirelessly.

The character of Margaretella in È piccerella has a strong sensual temperament that literally drives men out of their minds, as in Giovanni Verga’s short story “La Lupa” (“The She-Wolf,” 1880). This female character, described by one of the leading exponents of Italian realism (verismo), is a man-eater, hence her epithet; her sexual desire and her spatial unrest make her, in the eyes of the inhabitants of a small Sicilian village, a devil, a term that recalls the nicknames given to the young Margaretella: evil genius, bad thorn, evil beauty, ‘nfama.

The short story ends with the protagonist’s death, killed by one of her lovers. This plot is repeated in È piccerella. The image of la lupa who drifts through the vicoli (alleys) of an arid village, almost unconscious of the direction in which she moves, from one space to another without ever standing still, who appears to suffocate inside an enclosed space, reminds us of Margaretella escaping a nagging suitor in a car or dancing in the ballroom. Both women satisfy their sexual and spatial urges, indulging their needs for bodily stimuli.

È piccerella
È piccerella

Our body is not an empty shell in motion, it is the filter that puts our inner world in touch with the urban environment in which we move. The body is like a window through which the subject decides to look out, to open, or shutter up to remain satisfied with only the image of the world. The bodily experience of a space can be indifferent to a subject if the window of his inner world is closed to what is new. An open window is a space for sharing, an interior that becomes exterior and vice versa, a limit that becomes permeable, a transmission of sensory signals, a breath of fresh air. As long as the window of our ego remains closed, our perception of the world will be distorted.

The image of ​​a window on the chest of men as symbol of a possible opening into the interiority of a subject, is an image that comes from Vitruvius, who, referring to the words of Socrates, said:

“The human breast should have been furnished with open windows, so that men might not keep their feelings concealed, but have them open to view […] However, since they are not so constructed, but are as nature willed them to be, it is impossible for men, while natural abilities are concealed in the breast, to form a judgment on the quality of the arts which is thus deeply hidden.” (2008: 17)

Such an open window would create a direct relationship between our ego, our inner world, and the outer world around us. Our body would not be in this way an obstacle to the expression of ourselves, but a whole with our identity. Our physical experience of the urban environment would have an authenticity only possible through communication between the two worlds, inside and outside.

Extending the thought to architecture, Vitruvius stated that, since the latter is comparable to a human body, its interior, like the inner world of a man, will never be visible from the outside and therefore will be a rigid and closed structure. An inviolable interior.

Elvira Notari has an open window on her chest, she has the natural impulse to communicate her inner world to the one that surrounds her. Naples, like her, has a structure that projects itself to the outside world, the passage between inside and outside is fluent and unhindered. Naples is an open window onto its streets. Walter Benjamin said about the city:

“[In Naples] buildings are used as a popular stage. They are all divided into innumerable, simultaneously animated theatres. Balcony, court yard, window, gateway, staircase, roof are at the same time stage and boxes. Even the most wretched pauper is sovereign in the dim, dual awareness of participating, in all his destitution, in one of the pictures of Neapolitan street life […] enjoying […] the leisure to follow the great panorama […]

In the materials, too, the street decorations are closely related to those of the theatre […] Similarly dispersed, porous, and commingled is private life […] To exist, for the Northen European the most private of affairs, is here, as the kraal, a collective matter.

So the house is far less the refuge into which people retreat than the inexhaustible reservoir from which they flood out […] Just as the living room reappears on the street, with chairs, hearth, and altar, so only much more loudly, the street migrates into the living room […] Poverty has brought about a stretching of frontiers that mirrors the most radiant freedom of thought.” (1978: 167-71)

Closing the window, suppressing stimuli and leaving desires unsatisfied means oppressing our natural inclinations. La lupa (the she-wolf) is described as an animal-like being, simply because she is a woman who follows her impulses and is carried away by them. She is a flaneuse because the window of her ego is open to communication with the outer world. A flaneuse plunges into the urban environment and processes it through the internal analysis of her experiences.

'A Santanotte
‘A Santanotte

The image of the window recurs also, in the films of Elvira Notari, as an iconographic representation of Christian worship. People of Naples, superstitious by nature, give vast importance to the veneration of images of saints and Madonnas that often adorn the streets of the city, placed by the walls of the houses as windows opening onto the street: “Such altars, with a couple of candles underneath, are found at every street corner, in the popular quarters, during festivals” (Serao 2008: 17).

Even the prayer, an action usually intimate and private, is projected to the outside world in the city of Naples, becoming a mixture of sacred and profane. The shrine is always placed on a higher position so as to create a sense of submission in the believer during the act of prayer. In ‘A Santanotte, Nanninella is seen looking out at one of these street shrines with a pleading look. She hopes to fulfill her dream of love with Tore; but she will instead be forced to marry his treacherous friend, Carluccio.

'A Santanotte
‘A Santanotte

In the wedding scene between Nanninella and Carluccio, the couple is seen framed by the mighty structure of the large door when they leave the church. Spectators are waiting outside for the passage of the couple and a kid, in the left corner, looks at the wedding party with a dreamy stance. The couple and the onlookers appear to be separated, existing in different worlds absolutely distant from one another. Nanninella, still in love with Tore but now the wife of Carluccio, looks desperately through the door frame as if realizing that the outside world seen from the nave of the church, will not longer be accessible to her after the wedding.

The city, in Elvira Notari’s films, is also the backdrop for intimate moments between two lovers. These scenes carefully choose panoramic viewpoints from which better to admire Naples. Their gaze moves from the top of a hill at the bottom of the sea. The lovers find momentary relief by retreating briefly from the urban din.

'A Santanotte
‘A Santanotte

Elvira looks at the city from several viewpoints; exploring it street by street, living in the noise of bars and arcades, visiting the courtyards of popular districts, travelling in a carriage, by car, on foot, but sometimes she feels that her inner world becomes too distressed, too shocked by the stories and images, so she moves away from the city, but like the characters in her films, she leaves it to admire it, to love it again, to see anew in all its splendour. For that reason she momentarily closes her window, sighs and analyzes.

The analysis of the city of Naples in the films of Elvira Notari is comprehensive, it moves seamlessly from public to private stories. She explores the city in its private life, realizing that the whole understanding of it cannot be limited only to public appearance, but that public and private, outside and inside, can never be separated.

“Without attention to gender there is a tendency to represent the city as a generally public space, that is to focus on its street life, leaving out the home life within the tenements, flats, dwellings and backyards in which family life takes place […] The domestic remains invisible in representations of the city as a public ‘space’ which is thought of as merely the built analogue or architectural concretisation of the public ‘sphere’.” (Shields 1996: 236)

Aware of the enormous possibilities of the opening of a window, the flaneuse is ready to drift into the city.

Rossella Scalia is a London-based architect and writer. Her research interests include psychogeography, photography, cinema and the urban environment.


Benjamin, Walter (1973), Charles Baudelaire : A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, London: New Left Books.

Benjamin, Walter (1978), Refections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, edited by Peter Demetz, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Bruno, Guiliana (1992), Streetwalking on a Ruined Map: Cultural Theory and the City Films of Elvira Notari, Princeton University Press.

Geist, Johann Friedrich (1983), Arcades: The History of a Building Type, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Pasolini, Pier Paolo (1976), Lettere luterane, Turin: Einaudi.

Sartre, Jean Paul (2000), Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, London: Routledge.

Serao, Matilde (2008), Il ventre di Napoli, Milano: Treves.

Shield, R. (1996), A Guide to Urban Representation and What to Do About It: Alternative Traditions of Urban Theory’ in Re-presenting the City: Ethnicity, Capital and Culture in the 21st-Century Metropolis, edited by A.D. King, New York University Press.

Vitruvius (2008), The Ten Books on Architecture, London: The Echo Library.

3 thoughts on “Elvira Notari: A Woman in Search of Desire”

  1. Great article on Notari — I was lucky enough to see one of her films projected at The Museum of Modern Art in New York about ten years ago, accompanied by a lecture by Giuliana Bruno.

    Bruno’s work really set the stage for a re-appreciation of Notari’s work, and as with Alice Guy, she is still almost unknown today, and uncredited for her work at the beginnings of the cinema, when Porter, Edison, Griffith and others are routinely cited as the “founding fathers” of cinema — which they are not. To their names, the work of Augustin Le Prince, Alice Guy, Elivira Notari and many others must be added, as people who made a real impact on the cinema in its early, formative era.

  2. This is an important essay. I have long been interested in the life and career of Elvira Notari. I do find it frustrating that her films are unavailable on DVD, long after Guiliana Bruno’s brilliant book brought them to the attention of cinephiles around the world. I sure hope someday Notari’s films will become widely available. Your fascinating essay makes me even MORE anxious for these films to find their place on DVD and in the canon.

  3. Thanks for appreciating my essay. Elvira Notari has been an important/fascinating discovery, hope she will find soon the place she deserves in the silent cinema scene.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *