The Nineteen Hundreds of Margherita Sarfatti

Sarfatti by Wildt 

By Ivan Buttignon (Translated by L. Pavese).

          At the end of 1922, with Benito Mussolini firmly seated as President of the Council of Ministers (the executive branch of the Italian government), Margherita Sarfatti began to delineate her cultural project in a modernist sense. With Mussolini’s permission, Sarfatti founded the artistic movement Novecento Italiano (the Italian 20th century) with the goal of creating an entirely new Italian art that would reinvent the Italian tradition from Roman to medieval art, merging it with modernity and therefore becoming the figurative transposition of fascist ideology.

The movement was sparked one October night in 1922, shortly before the fascist March on Rome, when Sarfatti attended a meeting at the Pesaro art gallery in Milan. Seven of her favorite artists were present, namely, Anselmo Bucci, Leonardo Dudreville, Achille Funi, Gian Emilio Malerba, Piero Marussig, Ubaldo Oppi, and Mario Sironi. [2]
 The purpose of the meeting was to formalize the formation of the artistic group that had been conceived and wished-for by the “Red Virgin” herself. [3] Margherita Sarfatti became the unofficial advertising agent of the new group, in charge of publicity and critical reviews.
During a second meeting that was entirely devoted to finding a name for the group, Anselmo Bucci proposes the name “I Candelabri” (the Menorahs), in view of the fact that the group had seven members. But Sarfatti and Pesaro were Jewish and considered Bucci’s choice a risky one that could cause unfavorable comments from the public. Bucci then floated a second proposal that the movement be named for the century in which it operated: Novecento (The Nineteen-Hundreds), and Novecento it became.[4]These are the years during which Margherita Sarfatti also edited the publications “Gerarchia” and “Il Popolo d’Italia,” and was also responsible for the foreign press service of the future Italian Duce. She did it all from Milan, to be close to her family.
During those early meetings of the organizing phase of Novecento, Sarfatti was careful to avoid any explicit reference to the current political situation and to Fascism, even though such references would have pleased the ultra-fascist Mario Sironi, who was the official illustrator of “Il Popolo d’Italia” and “Gerarchia,” and the painter Achille Funi, one of the very early supporters of the Fasci di Combattimento” (the Fighting Fasces organization). The two artists, together with Carlo Carrà, saluted euphorically the appointment of Benito Mussolini to the head of the government, the only man they considered capable to reaffirm the Italian supremacy in the arts over the rest of the world.[5]
          When, in March of 1920, Novecento decided to hold the first group exhibition, Margherita convinced the Duce to inaugurate the event. On that occasion, Mussolini gave a short speech, which was probably written by Sarfatti herself. He thundered:
“It is impossible to rule ignoring the arts and the artists. Art is an essential manifestation of the human spirit; it began with the history of humanity, and it will follow humanity to the end. And in a country like Italy, a government that did not care about art and artists would be deficient.
“I declare that the idea of anything that could even resemble a state art is very far from me. Art pertains to the sphere of the individual and the state has only one duty: to avoid impeding the arts, to ensure humane living conditions for the artists and to encourage them from a national and artistic point of view. I really care to point out that the government that I preside over is a sincere friend of the arts and of the artists.” [6]
It is very likely that Mussolini did not like the nudes, the portraits, the landscapes, the still-life paintings and the pictures of everyday objects painted by the artists of Novecento. But it is a fact that he appreciated the return to “order,” after all the Futurist clangor and the Dadaist nonsense.[7]
          Throughout the 1920’s, Margherita Sarfatti forcefully denounced the various attempts to imprint a Fascist mark on popular culture and the arts. In one of her articles, written to commemorate the first anniversary of the March on Rome, she declared in a lapidary tone that Fascism inspired “bad taste,” and that the only valid works were the bust of Mussolini created by Adolfo Wildt and Sironi’s satirical political cartoons.

Mussolini obtorto collo seemed to concur with her and, for that reason, he allowed Margherita to be his advisor in matters of aesthetics. It is not an accident that in 1924, at the national conference of the artistic organizations, Mussolini pointed out that, in his opinion, the concepts of Italy and art cannot be separated. Moreover, and these were his exact words, “For centuries art was our very own Fatherland”.[8]
Novecento achieved its first great public recognition in 1924, when the members received the official invitation to participate as a group in the Biennale of Venice. That would be the first time ever that an organized group exhibited at the Biennale. [9]
On April 26th, during Education Secretary Giovanni Gentile’s welcome speech to the King at the Biennale inauguration ceremony, a frowning and dark-in-the-face Filippo Marinetti yelled, “Down with decrepit Venice!”[10]
That was Marinetti’s way of protesting the exclusion of the Futurists from the Biennale. After all, many of the members of the Novecento group had come from Marinetti’s movement, and that hurt. But what hurt even more was that Futurism had not become (and never would become) Fascism’s official art form, and by that time it was already becoming a marginal artistic movement to the advantage of Novecento. [11]
          But Novecento was already coming apart. Regardless the recognition that the group had achieved thanks to the Biennale, Anselmo Bucci, Leonardo Dudreville, Gian Emilio Malerba, and Lino Pesaro, who were probably hostile to Margherita Sarfatti, decided to leave the group. Although Margherita’s friends, like Sironi, Funi and Pietro Marussig remained, the secession of the other members resulted in the dissolution of Novecento. [12]

Sironi. Natura morta antifascista

          Sarfatti’s artistic salon between Fascism and Anti-Fascism.
When peacetime came after the end of WWI, Margherita Sarfatti had employed two powerful cultural “levers” to secure a role for herself in Italian politics and the arts. These instruments were her personal column in the daily “Il Popolo d’Italia” and her salon. It was in her salon that, during her Wednesday meetings, she welcomed new guests and sealed new alliances. The poets Ada Negri and Alfredo Panzini were old acquaintances. Her new friends were Massimo Bontempelli, the illustrious professor Dr. Giuseppe Antonio Borghese, and the orchestra conductor Arturo Toscanini.[13]    Soon, Sarfatti added to her tools her new political magazine “Ardita,” a publication launched by her and by Benito Mussolini, the future Duce. The title “Ardita,” from Arditi, the name of the WWI Italian Royal Army’s assault troops, was chosen by the Red Virgin herself to honor not only her son Roberto (killed in action), but also the former Arditi who were now backing Mussolini. This monthly literary magazine owed a lot to the previous 1913-14 publication “Utopia,” and the first issue was published in March 1919 featuring a short story by Massimo Bontempelli. [14]
          In 1929, twenty-one-year-old writer Alberto Pincherle, better known as Alberto Moravia, published his first novel, Gli Indifferenti (The Indifferent Ones). From a sociologic point of view, the novel was very advanced. It portrayed in scathing prose the alienated and morally corrupted Italian bourgeoisie. Giuseppe Borgese, positively impressed by the novelty of Moravia’s work, welcomed it in the pages of the daily “Corriere della Sera” as a very important literary work. But when Moravia was introduced to Margherita Sarfatti, she greeted him in an inopportune and scornful way: “You’re the cousin of that pig, Carlo Rosselli!” She wasn’t wrong about the degree of kinship (but only about that).  Moravia was indeed the cousin of the Rosselli brothers who would be murdered by Mussolini’s agents in France in 1937.[15]
But many were the antifascists who frequented Sarfatti’s salon and, in 1929, Margherita met Calabrian writer Corrado Alvaro. The writer had fought in the Great War as a teen-ager, and later became a reporter in Rome. In 1925, while he was the editor of the Liberal newspaper “Il Mondo,” Alvaro had signed philosopher Benedetto Croce’s antifascist manifesto. The immediate effect of this choice had been Alvaro’s expulsion from the guild of fascist journalists. Margherita met him in the home of common acquaintances.
“I’d like to see you again,” Margherita told him. “I receive every Friday.” Alvaro pondered his isolation and the fact that he was being hounded by Mussolini’s henchmen. He knew that under Margherita’s protective umbrella he would find a haven. He decided to play the Margherita card; he began to frequent assiduously her salon and so it’s rumored — became her lover. A year later — but this might be just a coincidence — Alvaro won the Giovanni Agnelli literary prize for his novel Gente d’Aspromonte (People of Aspromonte). The prize had been instituted by the Turin’s daily newspaper La Stampa and included a £50,000 (Italian Liras) award.
But Alvaro put up with Margherita’s insolence and capriciousness only until he realized that being her friend had become counterproductive.[16] There is an amusing anecdote that Corrado Alvaro told frequently, which says a lot about the tensions between Margherita Sarfatti and Mussolini’s family. One evening a lady had invited inadvertently and maybe a little carelessly both Sarfatti and Edda Ciano (Mussolini’s daughter) to her party. When Edda arrived, everyone huddled around her, except Margherita, Alvaro and Bontempelli. For that reason, throughout the entire evening everyone avoided Margherita like the plague. When the time came to leave, Margherita and Edda met face to face and Sarfatti, with a big smile on her face, exclaimed: “Good evening, Countess!” while the other woman, after an icy “Buonasera” in reply, said intentionally and very loudly: “Who’s that woman?”[17] These and other episodes would suggest Corrado Alvaro that his patroness was no longer able to guarantee his protection; and he would quietly slip away.[18]
Many other “antifascist” personalities frequented Margherita’s salon. Some particularly assiduous frequenters, who came all the way from France, were former French Prime Minister and then Foreign Minister Louis Barthou, and writers André Malraux, Eugène Marsan, and André Gide. And even sui generis American “fascists” were present, such as playwright Sinclair Lewis (whose last great work, It Can’t Happen Here, was a speculative dystopian novel that told of the election of a fascist to the presidency of the United States) and the poet Ezra Pound, who would meet Benito Mussolini in 1933. [19]
Finally, her falling out of favor with the fascists would lead Margherita Sarfatti to a long personal reflection about the “search for happiness.” With the help of diplomat friends based in Rome, Sarfatti began to research and appreciate more and more the social experiment of American President Roosevelt’s New Deal, and she would increasingly become convinced that that was the new political frontier and the panacea for every social crisis. In 1934, she visited the United States. She studied the local situation and, in 1937, she wrote L’America, ricerca della felicità (America, the search for happiness).
From reading the text, it is clear that among Margherita’s always fervid political hopes was that Roosevelt’s America had replaced Mussolini’s utopic regime,[20] to the point that she would request the membership of the Socialist Party when she returned to Italy after the Second World War.
Ivan Buttignon
This article appeared on the Italian magazine Il Fondo, edited by Miro Renzaglia. It was translated and published here with their permission.
Ivan Buttignon is an author and a historian who teaches at the University of Trieste.
Your comments, as usual, will be greatly appreciated. Thank you.
Leonardo Pavese. 

[1] P.V. Cannistraro, B.R. Sullivan Margherita Sarfatti. LAltra donna del Duce, Mondadori, Milano, 1993, pages 292-294.
[2] U. Nebbia, La pittura del Novecento, Milano, 1946, pages 184-186.
[3] M. Sarfatti, Storia della pittura moderna, Roma, 1930, pages 123 - 125.
[4] P.V. Cannistraro, B.R. Sullivan Margherita Sarfatti. LAltra donna del Duce, Mondadori, Milano, 1993, page 296
[5] Un omaggio a Mussolini di poeti, romanzieri e pittori, November 3, 1922, in Camerasca e Gian Ferrari, Mario Sironi: Scitti, pages 67- 68.
[6] B. Riccio, La Sarfatti e, Mussolini e il Novecento, in La Repubblica Mercurio, April 29 1989.
[7] M. Sarfatti, Teorie, in Il Popolo dItalia, September 8, 1922.
[8] P.V. Cannistraro, B.R. Sullivan Margherita Sarfatti. LAltra donna del Duce, Mondadori, Milano, 1993, page  311.  
[9] Catalogo della XII esposizione internazionale darte della città di Venezia, (Catalogue of the 12th City of Venice International Art Exhibition), Milano, 1922, page 3.
[11] C. Salaris, Storia del Futurismo, Libri giornali manifesti, Editori Riuniti, Roma, 1985, page 127 and following.  
[12] R. Bossaglia, Il Novecento Italiano, Milano, 1979, page 72.
[13] P.V. Cannistraro, B.R. Sullivan Margherita Sarfatti. LAltra donna del Duce, Mondadori, Milano, 1993, page 211.
[16] A. Spinosa, Alla corte del duce, Mondadori, Milano 2001, page 15.
[17] R. De Felice, Mussolini, il duce, I: Gli anni del consenso 1929 1936. Einaudi, Torino, 1974, pages 519 533.
[18] P.V. Cannistraro, B.R. Sullivan Margherita Sarfatti. LAltra donna del Duce, Mondadori, Milano, 1993, pages 377 379.
[19] Ibidem, pages 379 381.
[20] S.Urso. Margherita Sarfatti, Dal Mito del Dux al mito americano, Venezia, 2003, page 213. 


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