For a correct relocation of Margherita Sarfatti. Massimo Mattioli's pamphlet

Review of the book "Margherita Sarfatti Pi" by Massimo Mattioli (Manfredi Editions, 2019)

The heavy damnatio memoriae to which Margherita Sarfatti (Venice, 1880 - Cavallasca, 1961) was forced because of her known ties with the Fascist regime did not allow a serene, full and correct evaluation of her dimension as an art critic, drastically reduced her high intellectual stature, and should finally and totally be overcome (without prejudice to the obvious condemnation for complicity with Fascism, by which, however, she herself, a Jew forced into exile in 1938, was finally affected) in order to enable us to appreciate one of the most sublime figures of the twentieth century, who must be restored to her rightful place in the sphere of art-historical literature, from which her name has been almost entirely erased: these are the premises behind Margherita Sarfatti pi, the agile pamphlet, published by Manfredi Edizioni, with which critic and journalist Massimo Mattioli brings to the attention of the public and scholars the problem of the revaluation of the Venetian critic, born Margherita Grassini. The publication of the volume comes just a short distance from the double exhibition that the Museo del Novecento in Milan and the Mart in Rovereto dedicated to her between the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019, and which has probably sanctioned, up to this moment, the highest point in the slow path toward a reconsideration of Margherita Sarfatti: a path that, it is worth remembering, has only recently been undertaken, and with timid results.

In fact, the interest of specialized studies in Margherita Sarfatti is new: the first contributions of a certain depth date back to the 1990s, but it is with the following decade that the number of those who have dealt with her has expanded, although often, Mattioli points out, the reading of her intellectual prominence has been largely marked by the relationship that bound her to the regime on the one hand and to Benito Mussolini on the other, and only in recent years (in particular, with the biography Margherita Sarfatti. La regina dell’arte nell’Italia fascista (The Queen of Art in Fascist Italy), written by Rachele Ferrario in 2015 and published by Mondadori) the debate would become fully aware of the first problem: untangling Margherita Sarfatti from the cumbersome presence of the Duce. The proposal for repositioning put forward by the author starts precisely from the demolition of the main clich that has vitiated so many examinations of Margherita Sarfatti’s contribution to Italian culture: her alleged role as the “dictator of culture” that critics have ascribed to her mainly because of her militancy, her widespread presence in the highest cultural circles of her time, her commitment in outlining the foundations on which the Novecento group would later arise, and her activity in promoting it. Mattioli has done extensive research in the Sarfatti Fund preserved at the Mart in Rovereto (and which includes writings, letters and documents, some of them hitherto unpublished), and the premises for dismantling the myth of the “Sarfatti dictator” can be found in a letter that Mussolini sent to his former mistress in July 1929, and in which the then Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Italy strongly condemns the Novecento group (“this attempt to make people believe that the artistic position of Fascism, is your ’900, is now useless and is a trick... since you do not yet possess the elementary modesty of not mixing my name as a political man with your artistic inventions or self-styled such, do not be surprised if at the first opportunity and in an explicit way, I will specify my position and that of Fascism in the face of the so-called ’900 or what remains of the late ’900”), but they could also be traced to some earlier circumstances, such as the opposition by some Fascist intellectuals (Marinetti, Ojetti, Oppo), or in Mussolini’s growing disinterest in Margherita’s role (a disinterest that was already sharpening after the March on Rome).

Copertina di Margherita Sarfatti pi di Massimo Mattioli
Cover of Margherita Sarfatti more by Massimo Mattioli

Margherita Sarfatti ritratta da Ghitta Carell
Ghitta Carell, Portrait of Margherita Sarfatti with cap and necklace, detail (ca. 1925-1930; Rovereto, Mart, Archivio del ’900, Fondo Margherita Sarfatti)

Mattioli’s essay then takes up the rise of Margherita Sarfatti, dwelling on the moment of her arrival in Milan, in 1902, after moving from her native Venice: it was through Anna Kuliscioff and Filippo Turati that the young Venetian had the opportunity to meet Marinetti, Carr, Boccioni, and Sant’Elia, personalities who did not struggle to recognize her talent and personality early on. The book suggests, albeit in a veiled way, the importance of the fellowship that began to be created with Anna Kuliscioff, if only because both, women, were fighting hard to assert themselves within the narrow confines of a masculine and macho world: Margherita Sarfatti herself, in her writings, did not shy away from hurling strides against her colleagues, as when, in her biography of Mussolini published in England in 1925(The Life of Benito Mussolini), she writes of Kuliscioff that “she was destined to see the ambitions of her whole life thwarted by the mediocrity of the men through whom she worked” (“she was destined to see the ambitions of her whole life sunk by the mediocrity of the men with whom she worked”). A brief section of Mattioli’s contribution is dedicated precisely to the question of gender in the culture of the time, which deals with the topic with a certain rapidity (although it should be specified that it is a subject on which many pages have already been spent), but does not shy away from underlining its importance, identifying in Margherita Sarfatti herself the female figure who more than others marked the culture of the time: “beyond the figure of the emancipated, brilliant, influential woman,” the author explains, “her most profound identity, pursued with passion, determination and even suffering, is that of art critic, the first woman to exercise it in the modern sense.” And this primacy of hers makes Margherita become “the forerunner of a series of extraordinary women who will mark Italian art in the short century.”

Thus, a sort of introibo necessary to overturn the terms of the relationship between Margherita Sarfatti and Mussolini as certain historiography would have portrayed it emerges: a critical path that, in any case, has been building since the 1990s (Mattioli acknowledges that the beginnings refer back to De Felice), although it has always encountered various and daring resistances (and certainly the many biographies that in the titles continually referred to the liaison that the critic had with the leader of Fascism did not help). From the author’s fast and pressing analysis emerges, contrary to what other portraits would seem to indicate, the picture of a relationship in which there was no lack of disagreements (including on political positions: Sarfatti, for example, was opposed to Fascist aims on the colonies), and which often saw Margherita’s personality prevail over that of the Duce, as more recent studies have recognized and as an unpublished note that Mattioli publishes in his book seems to attest (the critic wrote that “the real profound influence of woman on man consists not so much in determining from time to time his actions and decisions by the advice she can give him, but in determining, by her influence and above all by what she thinks of him, the unfolding of his character”). This note reinforces the idea of a Margherita Sarfatti who introduces a Mussolini in his early thirties to socialist philosophy, the study of economics and history, who suggests to him, Mattioli further specifies, “to delve into Aristotle, making him discover the thought of Machiavelli,” and who will not fail to advise her lover even when the latter enters politics and takes over the government of the country. After all, for her, Mussolini was nothing more, Mattioli says, than “a link in her structured relational chain.”

Another central node is that of the Novecento group, which the vulgate sometimes passes off on the one hand as a movement that had hegemony over Italian culture during the years of Fascism, and on the other as the only significant episode that occurred in Margherita Sarfatti’s career. If the first of the two clichs has already been abundantly disproved (De Felice is quoted: “for most of the Fascist era, the regime sought the consent of artists and the link between art and the state was characterized by mutual recognition under official leadership,” and Emilio Gentile is added: “with its cultural policy, Fascism aimed to spread its ideology through a judicious orchestration of themes and interpretations of the past and present, with diversified forms of representation, not always ideologically explicit, in order to avoid the counterproductive effects of an excess of political propaganda in a mass already exposed to the constant totalitarian pedagogy of the other institutions of the regime and especially of the political liturgy.” and such considerations “apply to all forms of organization and cultural expression of the Fascist regime, which in this field always maintained an eclectic attitude, renouncing the imposition, especially in the field of literary and aesthetic manifestations, of a state art.”), the second is instead decidedly more pertinacious. One of the most interesting results of Mattioli’s essay is the discovery of a further unpublished note, which dates March 25, 1913 (a time when Margherita Sarfatti was thirty-three years old), and with which the young woman, in tracing in three passages the evolution of art with reference to the figure of the horse, posed the problem of the renewal of the "expressive vision of plastic and graphic art " in the aftermath of the progress achieved by the art of photography, and in the period of the full development of Cubism and Futurism. The note demonstrates, according to Mattioli, that Margherita Sarfatti was already keenly aware of the direction that Italian art should take, and was fully aware of the most pressing problems of the day. Problems that the young critic would have continued to challenge even after the experience of Novecento: examples are given in Segni, colori e luci (Signs, colors and lights), where Margherita Sarfatti relates to tradition in terms of the search for a classicism and not a classicism, or in Storia della pittura moderna (History of modern painting), a fundamental compendium of her theories. The hypothesis is that, while Novecento remains a central junction in Margherita Sarfatti’s career, the long theoretical elaboration that led to the constitution of the group and the consequences that resulted, would be sufficient presuppositions to disprove the idea that Novecento represents a fleeting and unique moment.

What follows is recent history: his retirement after the war, the silence that fell around his figure until the 1990s, flawed and distorted judgments, a slow rediscovery still waiting to arrive at full results but which, as the aforementioned exhibitions of recent months attest, seems to be well directed. And to the urgency of which, also for a more complete understanding of what happened to Italian art during the years of Fascism (as well as to do justice to an extraordinary and long-forgotten woman), Massimo Mattioli’s impassioned, fervent and pressing essay refers, which focuses, rather than on a reconstruction of Margherita Sarfatti’s life and work, on identifying the foundations from which one should work to give her new value. An essay that does not even fail to be provocative: what would have happened, the author wonders at one point, if an intellectual of such vast culture, of such intellectual depth, who frequented the most fascinating cultural figures of the time when Mussolini was still teaching in provincial schools, had never met the future Duce? Probably, today Margherita Sarfatti would be recognized and unanimously celebrated as one of the most important women of the 20th century and as a “central figure in the development of ideas and the elaboration of cultural and political thought of an important part of the 20th century,” her value as the first woman in the world to hold the position of art critic in the modern sense would be fully recognized, and perhaps she would have become, Mattioli further provokes, an icon of feminism. We are in time to catch up.

Massimo Mattioli
Margherita Sarfatti plus
Manfredi Editions, 2019
119 pages
14 euros