11 May 2016

Fanny Cerrito - ballerina

Neapolitan star thrilled audiences across Europe

Picture of Francesca 'Fanny' Cerrito
Francesca 'Fanny' Cerrito
One of the most famous ballerinas of the Romantic era, Francesca 'Fanny' Cerrito was born on this day in 1817, in Naples.

Her talent for dancing emerged early and after training in the ballet school of the famed Naples opera house Teatro di San Carlo she made her debut there in 1832, aged only 15.

She quickly became the darling of the San Carlo and wowed dance audiences in many Italian cities. By the age of 21 she had obtained the position of prima ballerina at La Scala in Milan, working under the direction of Carlo Blasis, another Neapolitan, who was renowned for his rigorous and exacting classes.

When Cerrito and the Swedish-born ballerina, Marie Taglioni, who had Italian heritage, danced in the same programme in Milan, the event caused considerable excitement in the city, with audiences divided in their support for one or the other.

Cerrito's fame spread around Europe and for nine seasons between 1840 and 1848 she became a major attraction at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, where she worked with the French choreographer Jules Perrot and enjoyed what many critics regarded as her finest performance in Cesare Pugni's Ondine.

Such was her fame that Alexis Soyer, a Frenchman who at the time was London's most celebrated chef, created a dessert in her honour, topped with a miniature figure of the dancer herself, balancing on a spiral of spun sugar.

It was during this time that her talent as a choreographer became recognised after she presented her own ballet, Rosida, in 1845.

London was a magnet for ballet stars and Cerrito and the Austrian dancer, Fanny Elssler, were asked to perform a pas de deux at the personal request of Queen Victoria.

Photo of Teatro di San Carlo in Naples
Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, where Cerrito
made her debut in 1832, aged just 15
A voluptuous, physically expressive dancer, she attracted considerable interest on and off the stage and much male attention. It was something that concerned her parents so much that they travelled with her to London essentially to chaperone her.

It was against her parents' wishes that she married Arthur Saint Leon, a Parisian dancer and choreographer four years her junior, with whom she had studied in Vienna.

They toured Europe together for six years but it was a volatile marriage that did not last. In 1851 they separated. In 1853, as a result of an affair with a Spanish nobleman, the Marquis of Bedmar, Cerrito had a daughter, Mathilde.

Cerrito's career took her next to Paris, where among other productions she performed the lead role in her own ballet, Gemma. In 1855 she returned to London to appear at Covent Garden and the Lyceum Theatre.

In 1856 she was invited to take part in celebrations in Moscow for the coronation of Alexander II. While performing there she was injured when struck by a piece of falling scenery and it is thought that this influenced her decision to retire the following year, although by this time she was regarded as past her peak and a new generation of Russian dancers were increasingly in vogue.

Her farewell performance was in London in 1857, at the Lyceum.

She sought peace and quiet in which to raise her daughter and lived a life in Paris that was ultimately so inconspicuous that when she died there in 1909 at the age of 92 it was in relative obscurity.  She is buried in Montmartre Cemetery.

Travel tip:

The Teatro di San Carlo in Naples opened in November 1737, 41 years before La Scala in Milan.   Built in Via San Carlo, close to Piazza Plebiscito, the main square in Naples, Teatro di San Carlo quickly became one of the most important opera houses in Europe. It is believed to be the oldest opera house in the world in which productions are still staged.

Photo of Teatro alla Scala in Milan
Teatro alla Scala in Milan, where Cerrito became
prima ballerina in 1838, working with Carlo Blasis
Travel tip:

Commonly known simply as La Scala, Milan's Teatro alla Scala opera house is situated in the heart of the city, just a short walk from the magnificent Milan duomo (cathedral) by way of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.  The opera house includes a fascinating museum that displays costumes and memorabilia from the history of opera. Opening hours are from 9.00 to 12.30 and 1.30 to 5.30pm.

More reading:

The official opening of Teatro di San Carlo in Naples

(Photo of Teatro di San Carlo by Armando Mancini CC BY-SA 2.0)


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