Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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Colouring the Figures. A First Survey on the Relations Between Working Women and Hand Colouring in Italy
Federico Pierotti

Last modified: 2010-05-12


Hand colouring in early cinema is an item of material history that still needs to be examined. Although we often read that hand colouring of positive stock was a duty usually assigned to women, it is quite rare to find more detailed information about this subject. We do not know for certain if this kind of historiographical oblivion is due to an objective absence of sources. or to a lack of proper research. Having said that, the renewed interest in the problem of colour in early cinema as well as in the contribution of women to the history of cinema has lead, during the last two decades, to a general consciousness of the relevance of the subject.

Currently, the few sources available refer mainly to the early Fench cinema. On the one hand, there are some records of oral witnesses (Elizabeth Thuillier in the 1920s, Germaine Berger in the 1990s); on the other hand, there exists iconographic documentation about the colouring room of Pathé and other studios. In addition to this sparseness of material, the majority of the secondary sources, which deal with the subject (histories of cinema, histories of colour technologies, etc.), tend to repeat second-hand information. This adds to the difficulty of researching this subject.  Moving from these assumptions, I will present a first contribution to the historiographical problem of the relation between working women and hand colouring in Italy at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, with a focus on the period of 1890-1910.

This investigation will focus on several issues: the relation between the trade of colours and other branches involved in the diffusion of synthetic dyes at the end of the 19th century; the continuation of other more recent colouring practices (photography, lantern slides, etc.); and the possibility of locating the phenomenon within a tradition that did not credit the work of women, which would span not only colouring, but also editing procedures (as witnessed by Berger). The main sources which I use for the investigation are journals, magazines, and handbooks of photography and cinematography, as well as other texts appropriate to highlight the state of feminine work in Italy during this period.

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