The silent era was something of a golden age for athletic female stars. American serial queens were beloved by audiences around the world—it would be hard to overestimate how popular (and bankable) stars like Pearl White were at their peak. In France, Josette Andriot was the premier French action actress, playing black-bodystockinged detective Protéa in five separate film instalments. Elsewhere in Europe, daredevil acrobats like the Dane Emilie Sannom enthralled audiences with their stunts.
Italy was not immune to the action woman craze: Pearl White was a popular draw, and Danish director Alfred Lind made several action-themed films in Italy, including these two circus pictures, and Sannom’s last film, La fanciulla dell’aria | Mistress of the Sky (1923).
But what of the homegrown talent? Of several Italian women who are noted to have performed athletic roles on film, perhaps the most prominent is the mysterious Astrea, who starred in four films between 1919 and 1921. In Greek mythology, Astrea (or Astraea) was the virgin goddess of innocence and purity; there is also a connotation of stardom or diva status to the name. A woman of considerable stature and strength, the actress Astrea was promoted as the ‘female Maciste’,1 playing roles that emphasized her physical power as well as her beauty and elegance.
I first became intrigued with Astrea after seeing her striking face gracing the cover of the anthology A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema. Having researched this enigmatic figure in Italian film history, here I want to present some details about Astrea’s career as well as publish a collection of photos of her that I’ve collected.
Who was Astrea?
In writings on film history, Astrea is usually mentioned to be the pseudonym of a Venetian noblewoman, contessa Barbieri or ‘contessa B’. In his article on athletic women in silent cinema, David Chapman mentions that an expert on the history of Venetian film has studied the matter and is certain that her family name is Barbieri.2 In fact, the link between the film actress Astrea and the noblewoman contessa Barbieri is easy to establish. Astrea is listed in the 1920 and 1921 editions of the Rassegna generale della cinematografia | General Survey of Cinema, a film industry directory published by the ill-fated Unione Cinematografica Italiana: her entries therein append the name ‘contessa Barbieri’.
Her apparent Venetian origins are indicated in the magazine Al cinemà, which states that Astrea is the nome d’arte of a Venetian countess who came to l’arte muta out of passion. However, no further personal details are yet known about Astrea/Barbieri.
Astrea’s film career
Astrea’s first film was La riscossa delle Maschere |The Resurgence of the Masks (1919), an anti-Austrian film produced by Leopoldo Carlucci, director of Caino.3 La riscossa was made in reaction to the defeat of the Italian army at Caporetto in 1917: the titular masks are characters from the Commedia dell’Arte, used as symbolic representations of different regions of Italy. Per Chapman, Astrea portrays Italia Turrita, the personification of the Italian people, who animates the masks and calls them to arms.
Her role was aggressive; a later author observed that it was unusual that a woman portrayed such a “crudely violent” character.4 Filmed at the tail end of World War I, La riscossa took several months to be approved for exhibition and therefore did not reach screens until 1919; the censorship notes singled out for suppression the “cruel and repulsive scenes of the killing by drowning of the Butler Eugenio Irich, and the Austrian soldier wounded by Astrea and thrown to the pigs.” La riscossa did however gain a positive review in Turinese newspaper La stampa.
It was Astrea’s next film that was to make her name. Justitia (1919) was an action comedy that paired Astrea with the well-known comic Polidor (Ferdinand Guillaume). Again, there is a mythological connection in the naming, as the deity Astraea is traditionally linked to the goddess Justitia, Lady Justice. Astrea played a ‘Donna-Quixote’ figure, an adventurous princess who roams the world in service of justice, supported by her humorous sidekick Birillo (Polidor). In Justitia she takes up the cause of two young men whose exiled father has entrusted his naïve sons to the care of the unscrupulous baron Max. Astrea led the film and was a hit with audiences and reviewers; film magazine La rivista cinematografica stated:
Astrea is … Astrea, strong, daring and agile, an athlete of the first order and an elegant lady at the same time.
Justitia was a huge success at home and abroad. In Spain, the film was advertised in Mundo Cinematografo, which wrote: “The attractive novelty of this film is the work of the statuesque Astrea, who puts her muscles of iron to the test in beating her enemies in hand-to-hand combat.” In London, film journal The Bioscope was admiring, noting the
incredible acrobatics by the heroine, a lady Hercules who seems to have mastered the tricks of Houdini; this is the spectacular backdrop for a unique and agreeable adventure film whose thrilling sensations are intelligently interspersed with an irresistible comic vein. (quoted by Chapman)
Justitia was also distributed in the Netherlands, and even made it to the Southern Hemisphere: in Australia, it had an extensive run under the title Astrea, the Amazing Woman and variants.5 The Mercury of Hobart describes the film as “a most interesting story, in which Astrea has many opportunities of displaying her extraordinary strength and versatility. Polidor, the famous French comedian, is conspicuous in the cast, and contributes the humour that punctuates the play”. (The phrase “strength and versatility” is used over and over in these Australian adverts to describe ‘Madame Astrea’). In various Australian cities, Astrea, the Amazing Woman played on the same bill as Tol’able David, Nazimova’s War Brides, and Fatty Arbuckle’s Brewster’s Millions.
Astrea apparently did not make it across the Tasman Sea, although British and Continental Films advertised in NZ Truth as agents for the films of ‘Madame Astrea’ (as well as for those of divas Francesca Bertini and Soava Gallone).
Justitia survives in the collection of the Cineteca Italiana (Milan), although the copy is incomplete.
Astrea and Polidor followed up Justitia with L’ultima fiaba | The Last Fairytale (1920), also known as L’ultima avventura di Astrea e Polidor | The Last Adventure of Astrea and Polidor. A film provisionally identified as L’ultima fiaba was screened at the Cineteca di Bologna in 2010 as part of the programme Astrea e altre stelle atletiche | Astrea and other athletic female stars. Monica Dall’Asta writes: “The French copy found in the French Archives bears the simple title Astrea, but the plot does not correspond to Justizia, the first production of the Astrea-Polidor duo, distributed internationally with great success under the title Astrea; our identification of this film as L’ultima fiaba is still a working hypothesis.”
Astrea’s last film title was I creatori dell’impossibile | Creators of the Impossible (1921), which apparently concerned the hi-jinks of two peasants who win the lottery. La rivista cinematografica described the film as lightweight but fun, but a later review is more critical: “qualche volta divertente, spesso tediosa” (‘sometimes funny, often dull’).
Thereafter, Astrea vanished from the film world. Quoting Paul van Yperen of European Film Postcards, “Vittorio Martinelli writes that [I creatori dell’impossibile] was a rather far-fetched farce, ‘so Countess B. retreated to the shadows, silently, leaving her crown of the queen of muscles, not permitting anybody to touch her privacy’.” And indeed, no further biographical information about Astrea is known—not even her birth or death dates.
A different type of female star
Pictures reveal Astrea to have been very attractive, but in playing roles that emphasized brawn over beauty, she was clearly against the grain of conventional femininity. This is the focus of Angela Dalle Vacche’s discussion of Astrea in the book Diva: Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema. Dalle Vacche emphasizes Astrea’s large size and the way she towers over the diminutive Birillo (Polidor): “the way Astrea looked on-screen—huge and grotesque—undeniably brought to mind circus freaks.” She also writes that by contrast to the “childlike” appearance of petite actress Valentina Frascaroli (known as ‘La Farfalletta’, the little butterfly), “Astrea’s ballooning figure suggested the stereotype of the overwhelming mother, one who could never lose weight and therefore become an appealing wife or a seductive mistress.” She uses the words ‘grotesque’ and ‘oversize’ several times each to describe Astrea.6
Not having had the chance to see Astrea on film, perhaps her appearance really is that extreme, but I must say that these descriptions strike me as very loaded. Nonetheless, it’s evident that Astrea was physically imposing: she transcended traditional feminine stereotypes. As the Rassegna (1921) states, she is truly an “artiste qui ne ressemble à aucune autre” (‘an artist who resembles none other’). Her films caught the public’s attention, and together with those of other female cinematic athletes, helped broaden ideas of what womanhood might be: physically strong, self-sufficient, powerful.
Astrea in images
Here I present the pictures of Astrea that I’ve gathered over the last while—surely the most numerous collection of pictures of her yet available online (and most likely, anywhere). Click to see full size. Enjoy!