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Giovanni Grasso

Italian postcard, no. 604. Photo: Sciutto.


Giovanni Grasso (1873-1930) was an Italian stage and screen actor. While he goes as the best Sicilian tragic actor and one of the best in Italy, he also had a limited but important career in Italian silent cinema.


Giovanni Grasso was born in Catania, Sicily, on December 19, 1873, as the son of puppet master Angelo Grasso and Ciccia (Francesca) Tudisco, his second wife and puppet master too. Angelo Grasso’s father supposedly had introduced the puppet theatre in Catania, from Naples. In Catania Angelo opened a small puppet theatre, entitled Teatro Machiavelli, which at his death, in order to survive, turned into a vaudeville theatre. Small provincial companies stopped there, alternating edifying dramas with farces and subject performances ("scenoni"), inspired by news events. In this eclectic environment of the 1890s, young Giovanni Grasso was trained as a man of the theatre. He decided to brush up his paternal puppets, presenting – successful - shows. Among his greatest admirers was the playwright and journalist Nino Martoglio, who led the famous actor Ernesto Rossi to the Machiavelli. At the end of the show, Rossi, dazed by the expressive power of the puppeteer, urged him to become an actor.


This was the first of the "revelation meetings" – with a.o. people like D'Annunzio, Babel, and Mejerchol'd - that punctuated Grasso’s life, whose art was perhaps greater and, above all, more meaningful than he was aware of. At Rossi's requests Grasso rearranged the auditorium and increasingly alternated written texts with crime scenes, thus beginning to define his own dramaturgical repertory that clung to Sicilian texts but renewed by his interventions and his acting. Among his battle horses we must remember I mafiusi di La Vicaria di Palermo, by G. Mosca & G. Rizzotto; La zolfara, by G. Giusti Sinopoli; and Cavalleria rusticana, by Giovanni Verga. I mafiusi (1863), was based on the stories of an authentic mafioso, a certain Gioacchino D'Angelo (Jachinu Funciazza, in theatrical fiction), just out of jail. The drama had an immediate and lasting success, especially when Grasso began to interpret it. Zolfara, based on the big upheaval of the strikes of the Sicilian miners, did not gain much recognition when premiered in 1895, but thanks to Grasso’s version in dialect, became a triumph. Instead, Cavalleria rusticana, following Grasso’s often used practice, was represented in the Sicilian translation of Martoglio.


In 1901 Grasso formed his own company Città di Catania, with Angelo Musco as ‘brilliante’ and Carmelina Tria as first actress (later replaced by Mimì Aguglia and after her by Marinella Bragaglia). He did his first world tour, starting at the Politeama in Salerno (with La zolfara), on initiative of the capocomico (company manager) Mimì de Cesare, who sensed Grasso’s great talent. The tour subsequently touched Avellino and Naples, with a good artistic success but failed economic results. The real consecration of Grasso, however, took place in Rome, where he was called for some charity performances organized for the victims of the Modica flood (September 1902). On 30th November 1901 Grasso made his debut in Argentina with Cavalleria rusticana and I mafiusi. When asked about Grasso, Martoglio answered: "His mirror is nature"; this axiom, together with his powerful vigor, instinctive to the limit of violence, remained the trademark of the actor and his company. Always on the occasion of the Argentine Luigi Capuana, who had assisted, offered him the reworking in dialect of his play Malia, while G., prevented from returning to Catania because of the illness of his brother Micio, continued with resounding success his performances in Rome at the Teatro Metastasio.


Back in Catania, the Macchiavelli burned down in 1903. The same year Martoglio wrote for Grasso a new text, Nica, and together with him he raised the first Sicilian dialectal drama company, which included Musco, Bragaglia, Lo Turco, Totò Majorana , Micio Grasso, and the families Spadaro and Balistrieri. The repertory included, in addition to the dramas already mentioned, La lupa and Caccia al lupo by Verga; San Giuvanni addicullatu by Martoglio; Mastru Libertu l’armeri by F. Marchese; La festa di Adernò by Grasso himself. After performances in Catania and Naples, the company set off for a new tour. While La zolfara played without great success in Milan, Gabriele DÁnnunzio, present, was was struck by the expressive power. Nica and Cavalleria rusticana went better, even if critics condemned the interventions in the latter. After Milan, the tour continued touching Florence, Palermo, Messina and, again, Naples. Returned to Catania in August 1903, Grasso had to accept again the economic failure of the tour, and dedicated himself to the reconstruction of the Teatro Machiavelli. Meanwhile, urged by V. Ferraù, administrator of the company - who, however, mindful of past experiences, asked free hand in commercial management -, Martoglio gave life to the second Sicilian dialectal drama company, which, in 1904, set off for a new tour, ending in Turin. However, this time a novelty among the repertory became the hit of the season: 'A figghia di Joriu, G. Borgese’s Sicilian version of D'Annunzio's tragedy La figlia di Jorio, performed at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome on 17th September 1904.


At the end of 1906, the company departed for Spain, the initial stage of the long season of the big tours abroad, starting on 8 January 1907 at the Novedades theater in Barcelona, continued in Portugal, and from there to South America. After reprisals in Buenos Aires, the famous French actor A. Lugné Poe, impresario of Eleonora Duse, hired the Sicilian actors for one of their most important international impact: a tour in France. Here they arrived in January 1908. After the Parisian debut with Malia at the Marigny Theater, critics wrote: "No convention, no tradition: nature, life". The realism of the actors was compared to that of the "Japanese", the recitation was defined as "of an infinitely accurate and precise accuracy". Grasso’s repertory was classic: 'A figghia di Joriu, Cavalleria rusticana and La morte civile by P. Giacometti, already known to the Parisian public. Great appreciation was also obtained for La lupa, La zolfara, and Rusidda, by critics such as C. Mendès and by actors like Mounet-Sully. The usual appreciation for the "naturalness" of acting was now joined by the recognition for the great technical expertise of Grasso and his companions.


While Verga withdrew his texts for the changes made arbitrarily by Grasso (his also happened afterwards with Capuana and even with Martoglio), Grasso on February 3, 1908, preceded by the echo of French success, debuted in London, again with Malia. Here he saw the excellent criticisms repeated that praised his realism as "amazing, fulminant, colossal" and, again, his great acting technique. In October the company made its debut in Berlin and, after a fleeting episode in Hungary, moved to Russia, at the time one of the most vital centres of the European theatre. The debut was in St. Petersburg, with Malia, Feudalism (a Sicilian version of A. Campagna di Terra baixa, by A. Guimerà and another pillar of the repertoire of Grasso after his South American tour,), Stone between stones of H. Sudermann, The zolfara and 'A figghia di Joriu. Subsequent shows were given in Moscow and Odessa, both very important for the construction of the "fame" of Grasso and for the definition of his artistic figure. In Moscow, personalities of the caliber of K.S. Stanislavski, V.I. Nemirovich-Danchenko and N. Craig attended his shows, while Grasso, at the height of his success, was received at court. In Odessa he saw a fourteen-year-old Babel, who would later write on it in one of his Stories of Odessa (1931). In Babel's stunned words, Grasso’s performance of Grasso in Feudalism, already famous, exploded to theoretical attention, the famous anecdote for the way in which the pastor, played by Grasso, kills his rival by biting him in the throat, after having literally "flown" across the whole scene. In this respect, Mejerchol'd wrote: "I realized numerous laws of the biomechanics when I saw the acting of the magnificent Sicilian tragic actor Grasso". By identifying the biomechanical roots in the movement of the whole body, regardless of the part directly affected, Mejerchol'd was the first in succeeding to clarify that "expressive power", which many had only intuitively perceived. With Grasso it was always the whole body that acted, spoke, or simply, was present, that is: to be perceived, on stage.


In 1909, after the Russia tour, the company returned to England. Particularly significant, this time, was Grasso’s interpretation of Othello, one of Grasso’s earliest roles but one he had always refused to represent outside his Catania. The success was, as usual, amazing, while critics spoke now openly of self-restraint, while for Feudalism they defined Grasso "a physical obsession", but a controlled obsession and guided by technique. In April 1910, the company embarked on a second eight-month tour to South America, touching Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Peru. Back in Catania, after a new stop in England, Grasso married singer Concetta Silvia Carducci, with whom he had lived from the times of the Machiavelli variety, and with whom he had four children. He then dissolved the company for a long period of rest. More or less since this time Grasso, now in a declining phase, threw off his theatrical activity, although never interrupted and even if the repertoire was enriched with new texts, including Il berretto a sonagli by Luigi Pirandello. In 1913 he played Cavalleria rusticana in Rome; in 1916 he was in Messina; in 1917 in Palermo and in 1919 in Rome, at the Teatro Eliseo. In 1921, with first actress Carolina Balistrieri Bragaglia, he left for a tour in the United States, debuting on September 8th in New York, at the Major Royal Theatre, in the heart of the Italian quarter, with Feudalism. The performances lasted for five months, with traditional battle horses like Malia and Cavalleria rusticana, but also with novelties by young authors. Success continued to be great, but at the end of this tour his voice showed the first signs of hoarseness worsened over time. In 1923, G. formed a new company with his brother Micio, his cousin Giovanni junior (who eventually would become a famous sound film actor too), and Virginia Balistrieri, junior’s wife. In 1927-28 Grasso did his last tour in America. In his last years, with a by now almost extinct voice, he gradually lost the public’s favor.


Giovanni Grasso was also a popular cinema actor. Already in 1910, during his second South American tour, he had shot, directed by Mario Gallo, two films taken from his famous theatrical interpretations: La morte civile/Muerte civil and Cavalleria rusticana. But it was, as usual, Martoglio to offer him the most significant occasions. In fact, the latter, at the end of 1913, had been appointed artistic director of the Rome based company Morgana films. It was this production house that made the trilogy, also directed by Martoglio: Capitan Blanco (Nino Martoglio, Roberto Danesi, 1914), starring Grasso and Virginia Balestrieri and based on the drama Capitan Matteo Blanco by the same Martoglio; Sperduti nel buio (Lost in the dark, Martoglio 1914), with Grasso, Balestrieri and Maria Carmi and after the drama by Roberto Bracco; and Teresa Raquin, with Maria Carmi and Dillo Lombardo but without Grasso, and after Émile Zola’s famous novel. In Sperduti nel buio, of 1914, which is Grasso’s most famous film and was considered almost an incunabulum of pre-Neorealist cinema, Grasso interpreted the blind Nunzio. In a review, Bracco underlined the "expressive" contrast between the grace of the character and the power of the actor. In the early 1940s Sperduti nel buio was hailed as precursor of what would become Italian Neorealism, but during the war the Germans took the print from the Roman archive and it never resurfaced; neither other prints of the film, raising its mythology.


The cinematographic activity of Grasso continued until 1926. Between 1919 and 1926 he was highly active and performed in some nine films, including Mala Pasqua (Ignazio Lupi, 1919) with Linda Pini, L’ospite sconosciuta/ Malafemmina (Telemaco Ruggeri, 1923) with Pina Menichelli, and Cavalleria rusticana (Mario Gargiulo, 1924) with Grasso as Alfio, Mary Cléo Tarlarini as Nunzia, Tina Xeo as Santuzza and Livio Pavanelli as Turiddu. Twice Grasso had the lead in Balzac adaptations Vautrin (Alexandre Davrennes, 1919) and Tromp-la-Mort (Devarennes, 1920). Amleto Palermi directed Grasso in three films: Dopo il peccato (1920) with Bella Starace Sainati, Il dramma dell’amore (1920) with Claretta Sabatelli, and La casa degli scapoli (1923) with Diomira Jacobini and Livio Pavanelli. Grosso’s last part was in the Capuana adaptation Il cavalier Petagna (Mario Gargiulo, 1926), with Soava Gallone. Giovanni Grasso died in Catania on 14 October 1930.


Unfortunately, almost all of his films have been lost. With particular reference to Sperduti nel buio, one of the most sought films in the world of film archives and film history, we can only talk about it on the basis of the screenplay, photos and reviews. A booklet with 24 photos has been put online on the website But sometimes fortune smiles at us. In 2005, at the Dutch EYE Filmmuseum, a tinted print of the short film Un amore selvaggio (Cines 1912, director unknown) was found, restored and relaunched internationally. It was not only the only film with the Southern actors Raffaele and Luisella Viviani, but it is now also the only surviving film with Giovanni Grasso (even if his part is unmentioned in Bernardini&Martinell’s famous filmography Il cinema muto italiano). When in 2011 the film was shown in Sicily before the heirs of Grasso and Viviani’s son, they immediately recognized the actors. It was in 1912 that Cines shot 3 films with Viviani (his only ones) and that also famous plays in which Grasso where filmed: Malia and Feudalismo, were filmed. Un amore selvaggio, is a rural drama, clearly influenced by the literary works of Verga and Capuana. On a Sicilian farm, brother Giuseppe (Viviani) and Carmela (Luisella Viviani), sister, both work. The rebel and violent Giuseppe is fired for offending his master, and would like to take his sister with him, but she refuses because she desperately loves the owner’ son Alessandro (Grasso), who rejects her and is already engaged. The woman then tries to poison her rival in love, but is discovered and in turn cast out. In order to take revenge, she tells Giuseppe that she has been seduced and asks his brother to kill Alessandro, but while she spies the rival's house she rolls into an embankment and is cared for by Alexander's good and kind girlfriend. Repentant, Carmela confesses Giuseppe she lied, just as he is about to hit Alessandro with a sickle. He forgives her and the two leave together. The brutal and tragic character of Giuseppe reminds of Grasso’s expressive parts, so it is remarkable Viviani plays that part and Grasso has a more moderate role.


Source: Franco Ruffini - Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani - Volume 58 (2002); See also Italian Wikipedia and IMDB.


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Taken on March 14, 2014