Ferragamo Exibitions Italy in Hollywood

A new chapter in the life of Salvatore Ferragamo is the source of inspiration for the exhibition at the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo scheduled to open on 24 May 2018.

The exhibition will reflect on the years when Ferragamo lived in California (1915- 1927), an intense period of experiences and socialization that the Italian craftsman spent on the West Coast, first in Santa Barbara and later in Hollywood. In 1927, Ferragamo’s American experience came to an end; other challenges, opportunities, and company and business decisions awaited him in the homeland. 

At the dawn of Italy’s entry into the First World War, Salvatore Ferragamo left his native town, Bonito in the Irpinia region, and set sail from Naples on the Stampalia to join his elder brothers, who had left a few years before for North America, a favourite destination for emigration from southern Italy. After spending a short period of time in Boston, Salvatore decided to settle where his brothers, Alfonso e Sec- ondino lived, near Santa Barbara in California. Together they opened a shoe repair shop where they also made custom-made shoes. It was the beginning of Salvatore’s collaboration with the world of cinema and its leading names, including some of the most famous filmmakers at the time, like D.W. Griffith, James Cruze, Raoul Walsh, and Cecil B. DeMille. Salvatore Ferragamo made shoes for some of DeMille’s most important costume dramas, including The Ten Commandments (1923) and later The King of Kings (1927). Salvatore was soon rubbing shoulders with California’s high society. 

In no time at all the young Italian became a shoemaker and a shoe designer, as the American press de- scribed him, becoming so famous that when the film industry moved to Hollywood, he followed it there, opening a new store on Hollywood Boulevard called the Hollywood Boot Shop. Its customers were the most famous stars of the day, like Mary Pickford, Pola Negri, Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford, Lillian Gish, and Rudolph Valentino. With all of them what had started out as a working relationship became a friendship, and Salvatore began spending his time with them on a daily basis. 

Many ideas have breathed life into this exhibition, offering the chance to examine the phenomenon of Italian migration to California in the early twentieth century, and to turn it into the focus of this project. It concerns a major moment in history, albeit one that is little known, capable of helping us to understand and appreciate the various and fascinating activities of Italians in that part of the United States. At the same time, it paves the way for a reflection on the perception of their presence on the West Coast and the influence of Italian culture on that part of North America, on its architecture, art, crafts, on the worlds of theatre and cinema, all areas that the young Salvatore Ferragamo was so interested in. Not to mention what the WASPs impressions of Italians, also expressed in the pages of Italian literature from that period. “I look back now and see a parallel between the film industry and my own”, wrote Ferragamo in his autobiography, a starting point for a reconstruction of his life. “Just as the motion picture industry has grown and developed from those fledgling days, so too, I hope, has mine”. (from S. Ferragamo, Shoe- maker of Dreams, Giunti, Florence,1985, pp. 83-84). The historical reconstruction, moreover, was able to count on a precious source for the first time: the recovered and restored audio recording that Salvatore Ferragamo had taped for the purpose of drafting his autobiography, which was published in English in 1957. The recording is a flow of words that por- tray the meaning of his life, as well as his devotion to and love of an occupation that, akin to a work of art, Ferragamo shaped with great thoughtfulness throughout his intense lifetime. 

An examination of some of the photographs and documents that Ferragamo had brought back with him to Italy so that he would never forget the marvellous period of time he spent in the United States triggered a reflection on the years he lived in California (1915-1927), filled with experiments and laisons but still wrapped in the fog of time. From that moment onwards, a study was begun in the United States by the scholar Catherine Angela Dewar under the guidance of the historian Elvira Valleri, making it possible to focus on some of the most important aspects of Ferragamo’s experience in California, and thus confirming not just his undisputed entrepreneurial skills, but also the determination and commit- ment of a man who sought to interpret change, shaping it according to his own vision of the world. The exhibition focuses attention on the world of art, crafts, and entertainment, privileged areas of in- terest in Ferragamo’s creativity, unfolding like a movie plot. The impression the visitor has of being on a movie set is aided by the scenography designed by Maurizio Balò, who was inspired by American stu- dios in the 1920s. 

The design and realization of the Italian Pavilion at the Panama - Pacific International Exposition of San Francisco in 1915 by the architect Marcello Piacentini is a starting point indicating just how great the fascination with Italian art and culture was in California. This was also exemplified by the collec- tions in private homes and the sumptuous movie theatres that were being built at the time, whose orna- mentation and structure were often Renaissance-inspired. 

Many Italian artists, painters, and sculptors took part in the exhibition organized at the Palazzo delle Belle Arti. Gathered there were more than 11,400 paintings, drawings, and other artworks from many places, produced over the past ten years. The Italian section was curated by Ettore Ferrari and Arduino Colasanti and it was very much appreciated by the public. Among the Italian artists who were awarded with the Grand Prix prize, Ettore Tito presenting five beautiful paintings, Onorato Carlandi and Camil- lo Innocenti, winning the Gold Medal and a special mention, thus contributing to the dissemination of the Italian legend. One special section, in a building annexed to the main one, was reserved for the Fu- turist artists who showed forty-seven works and two sculptures—a vast representation of contemporary Italian art—for the occasion. 

A large section of the exhibition documents the presence and influence of Italian style in the films be- ing produced in California. Italian—along with French—silent movies had dominated the internation- al scene up until that time. Italian cinema was characterized by the feature film, the use of a large num- ber of extras, beautiful landscapes, the reference to authentic monuments: such a mise-en-scène was clearly based on theatre and opera stage designs. Many Italian films during that period had a huge im- pact in the United States as well, especially the ones inspired by romanitas, such as Cabiria by Giovanni Pastrone in 1914, with captions by Gabriele d’Annunzio. The film was analysed by the director D.W. Griffith and by the screenwriter Anita Loos to make Intolerance. Many of the skilled workers involved on the set were Italian, as we are told by the movie Good Morning Babilonia by the Taviani brothers (1987), emphasizing the culture of “a job well done” that distinguished a certain image of the Italian 

immigrant, like Ferragamo. In the 1920s in Hollywood, the Italian silent movie was an interesting “lab- oratory” that supplied potential stars like Lido Manetti, actors who arrived from the theatre of the im- migrants like Tina Modotti and Frank Puglia (who debuted as a co-star in Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm) or the comedian Monty Banks, a pseudonym for Mario Bianchi. There were young and charming Ital- ians who became famous, like Rudolph Valentino, a forerunner of modern-day stardom. Also working in American cinema were directors who had been born in Italy and had emigrated to the U.S. when they were still very young, like Frank Capra and Robert Vignola, or second-generation Italian-Ameri- cans like Gregory La Cava and Frank Borzage. 

The exhibition project, in addition to casting light on both known and lesser-known names and per- sonalities, without overlooking Italy’s contribution to music, aims to clarify the ambivalent and often contradictory evaluation of Italian-Americans by the WASP culture, torn between an appreciation for the history and culture of our country, and the rejection of some of its characteristics based on the ste- reotypes that were attributed to immigrants, especially those who came from southern Europe. Immi- grants were said to be instinctive, passionate, and sentimental. This combination of nature and culture is rearranged in harmonious balance in the work of certain performers, for instance Enrico Caruso, who made the best of his natural gifts, voice, body, perfecting them thanks to study, technique, and art. The exhibition also includes American movies that were made in Italy in that period, with themes that referred to Roman Antiquity, such as Ben Hur by Fred Niblo (1925), or else ones produced and interpret- ed by actresses like Lillian Gish, like The White Sister and Romola. The latter movie was filmed in Flor- ence in 1924 and it exploited the art-historical expertise of Guido Biagi, then director of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Gabriellino d’Annunzio, and the Florentine aristocracy. For different reasons each of them were asked to contribute to the making of the scenes, which were clearly inspired by Ital- ian Renaissance art or by its Romantic interpretation in nineteenth-century painting. 

Italy offered many of the elements in its filmic representation to Hollywood’s silent movie genre: the model of the historical film, like Cabiria, is first and foremost the ideal instrument to link cinema to the history of art and culture. Hollywood stardom looked across the ocean to verify the modality of the portrait, imitating it and reinventing poses. Artisans skilled at woodworking and portraiture brought the Renaissance to California, then, after the temporary failure of the Italian productive system, Amer- ican stars began endorsing the new productive empire of the image in Europe. 

The exhibition to be held at the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo is mainly dedicated to the relations and roles of Italians and Italian art in the birth of the silent movie. But like all the museum’s exhibitions it examines the topic with a contemporary eye. The project Two Young Italians in Hollywood curated by Silvia Lucchesi director of Lo Schermo dell’Arte Film Festival for this exhibition will involve two young Italian artists who work in Los Angeles. Manfredi Gioacchini and Yuri Ancarani were invited to bring two original ideas to life—a series of photographs, and a video installation—which ideally prolong the theme. Today, now that a century has gone by, who are the Italians working in Hollywood? And what is it about those places that strikes the eye of an artist who comes from our country? 


The exhibition will be able to count on some prestigious loans by museums and collections, both public and private, Italian and American, and on the collaboration of some of the most important institutions linked to the world and history of cinema who have generously made their knowledge and advice available to us. The opening day of the project, in addition to a visit to the exhibition, includes a special event which becomes part of the exhibition itself: the screening of the movie Show People directed by King Vidor in 1928, offering an overview of 1920s Hollywood and its glamour. In one of the scenes we even see the sign for the Hollywood Boot Shop, Salvatore Ferragamo’s shop in the mecca of cinema. 

The movie theatre where it will be shown is the famous Odeon, formerly the Teatro Savoia. Located just a stone’s throw away from the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo the theatre was designed by Adolfo Coppedé in 1914, who was then replaced by the architect Marcello Piacentini in 1919. Piacentini made changes to the organization of the spaces, thus affecting function and distribution. The theatre was finally opened to the public in 1922.