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Mussolini’s Femme Fatale

II Duce’s Other Woman

by Philip V. Cannistraro, by Brian R. Sullivan
Morrow, 685 pp., $25.00


In 1939, Alma Mahler recorded the impression made upon her by Margherita Sarfatti during their common exile in Paris:

When I first met her she was the uncrowned queen of Italy. Now she is the crowned pauper of the exiles. As always, she is bold and spirited—but filled with much bitterness. Her deep love affair with Mussolini has become a boundless hatred. She visits us often, and her great energy animates all the emigrants.

It was a generous tribute from one former femme fatale to another. But if Sarfatti had never been Mussolini’s mistress, she would still have been an influential critic, connoisseur, and patron of modern art. No other woman had achieved a comparable position in the Italian art world in this century.

Although they were unable to recover more than a small fraction of her correspondence with Mussolini, Philip Cannistraro and Brian Sullivan have drawn on an extraordinary range of private papers and archives in order to write her biography. Besides the main plot of Sarfatti’s long involvement with Mussolini, their work contains a number of fascinating sub-plots. Their biography is important for the history of Italian Jews, socialism, feminism, the relationship between art and politics, Fascist propaganda and the image of Mussolini’s regime in the United States. A collector of people as well as pictures, Sarfatti was a friend at one time or another of D’Annunzio, Pound, Shaw, Einstein, Péguy, Cocteau, Colette, Berenson, Diego Rivera, and Josephine Baker, not to speak of the numerous artists who benefited from her patronage. She was a salonnière of international standing and an unofficial ambassador for Fascist Italy.

The story of Margherita Sarfatti can also be read as a parable of hubris, of the corruption by power and the misuse of talent. This brilliant, seductive, and cultivated woman, whose beauty and elegance were matched by her intelligence and visual sensibility, overreached herself. Her less pleasant traits are listed by her biographers in their preface; she was, they frankly admit, “greedy, calculating, thirsty for power, arrogant, opinionated, and self-centered.” Her ambition to be the éminence grise of Fascist cultural policy, though temporarily fulfilled, was bound to provoke a resentful reaction, not least from the Duce himself. Her condescension often alienated those whom she patronized, and her reputation for intrigue and boudoir influence infuriated those who were excluded from her favor. Yet if one reads this biography from beginning to end, it is hard not to be impressed by her energy, her boundless appetite for new knowledge and new experience, and her resilience in adversity. And if as a woman she can be said to have brought her troubles on herself, as a Jew she was subject to a destiny beyond her control.

At the time of Margherita Grassini’s birth in Venice in 1880, Italian Jews had every reason to feel optimistic about their future as members of the Italian national community. Under the liberal state they enjoyed a freedom from discrimination and a social esteem which were perhaps unique in Europe. Religious intolerance was a declining force. Margherita’s own father made a remarkable contribution to the improvement of relations between the Jews and the Church by befriending a parish priest, Giuseppe Sarto, who went on to become first cardinal patriarch of Venice, and later Pope Pius X. It was Grassini who advanced him the money to cover his expenses at the conclave. The family connection secured Margherita an audience with the deeply conservative Pius X even after she had begun to write for the Socialist press.

Amedeo Grassini was a devout Orthodox Jew, but his children received a secular education. In spite of her father’s strong conservatism, Margherita’s Jewish background gave her an enormous advantage over most Italian women of the time. Unlike many bourgeois families the Grassinis had no reservations about female education, and they hired three of the most distinguished and cultured Venetians to act as her tutors: the medievalist Pietro Orsi, the well-known historian of Venetian daily life Pompeo Molmenti, and the versatile secretary-general of the newly founded Venice Biennale, Antonio Fradeletto. Being taught by these talented men had the unintended but predictable effect of turning her into a rebel against her father’s values. She was too well-educated to be satisfied with a tranquil bourgeois existence.

Margherita Grassini had been born in a fifteenth-century palace on the Fondamenta della Misericordia, at the edge of the Old Ghetto. But her father was moving up in the world, and when she was fourteen he purchased a famous palace on the Grand Canal, Palazzo Bembo. When she was fifteen, an older man fell hopelessly in love with this Italian Jewish princess and wrote her passionate letters. He pursued his courtship by trying to convert her to his political ideals. The courtship failed, but the conversion succeeded. What could she do, except become a Socialist?

Israel Zangwill—the first of many celebrities Margherita captured—left a thinly fictionalized portrait of the Grassini family in his story “Chad Gadya.” Preoccupied by the dangers of Jewish assimilation, he saw the Grassinis as an example of how social success could lead to a loss of identity. “Venice was a melancholy ruin, and the Jew—the Jew lived sumptuously in the palaces of her proud nobles.” But for the children of such a family, now divorced from the community of the Old Ghetto, it was hard to identify with the domestic simplicity and religious faith of their parents. In Zangwill’s story, the son of the family ends by drowning himself in a canal. No such melodramatic catastrophe occurred in the Grassini family1 and yet one can agree that the problem of identity was a real one. Socialism offered at one and the same time a new sense of purpose, a new vision of community a secular interpretation of history, a means of transcending the narrow world of family, and an atonement for conspicuous wealth: one must remember that in Venice the rich and the poor still lived in close proximity. The spectacle of poverty aroused Margherita’s shame and indignation.

Philip Cannistraro, the author of the chapters on Margherita’s early life, suggests that, like most converts at this time, she was drawn to the ethical rather than the scientific side of socialism. Her inspiration came less from Marx than from Ruskin, to whose work she was introduced by Fradeletto. In her reaction to Ruskin, however, Margherita showed an original and independent judgment. Unlike her tutor, she went beyond the great critic’s celebration of Venice and discovered the subversive, Socialist Ruskin and the champion of Turner against academic orthodoxy. The message she absorbed was that art must express and serve the needs of the community, but that for this to be fully possible the creative relationship between the worker and his work must be restored, and that the only way to do this was through socialism. In the meantime, art must have a moral and educative function, and it must be brought to the masses. It was not enough to promote the art of the past; only a modern art could be attuned to the spirit of socialism.

It would, of course, be difficult to translate these ideals into practice. There can be no doubt that Margherita’s initial commitment to socialism was genuine, and when, she married the successful lawyer Cesare Sarfatti, who was thirteen years older, she succeeded in converting him to the cause. While advancing her husband’s political career, she was active on her own account in feminist journalism and politics. A liberated woman in both theory and practice, she campaigned for sex education in schools and for a law to make fathers responsible for their illegitimate children. She argued that it was only because they were treated as inferiors that women needed “protection.”

A belief in the inherent equality of the sexes and in the need to win greater freedom of action for women were convictions deeply rooted in her own character and experience, and which she never entirely abandoned, although in her Fascist period those ideals were severely compromised. She regularly attended the salon of the brilliant Anna Kuliscioff, the companion of the Socialist leader Filippo Turati, and it was there, Sullivan and Cannistraro believe, she would have made the acquaintance of Mussolini in 1912. Kuliscioff, who was of Russian Jewish origin, seems to have been a model for Sarfatti in a number of ways. She had a penetrating mind, and by temperament she was more decisive than Turati. Together they formed an extraordinary partnership. Even when she had turned Fascist, Sarfatti wrote of Kuliscioff with respect, though not with liking; she tended to exaggerate her dominance over Turati. It is not clear whether the respect was mutual. Kuliscioff found Sarfatti a useful and intelligent collaborator, but she seems to have suspected the depth of the younger woman’s commitment. Sarfatti refused to conform to the austere code of dress expected of bourgeois Socialists, and her flamboyant display of her wealth was taken, perhaps rightly, as a sign of a lack of seriousness.

In the meantime Sarfatti established her reputation as an art critic, and her artistic and literary connections enabled her to build up a salon which could compete with Kuliscioff’s own. The rivalry between the two hostesses was always latent, and not the least of Mussolini’s attractions for Sarfatti was that he made it possible for her to turn the tables on her older rival. Sarfatti’s art criticism was not separate from her socialism. She became an art critic for the Socialist Party newspaper Avanti! in 1908 and wrote articles about bringing art to the masses; in an article written in 1912 she celebrated the populist initiative of artists such as Giacomo Balla and the versatile sculptor, ceramicist, and illustrator Duilio Cambelotti, who had taken part in the movement to create schools for laborers in the region around Rome.2

On the other hand, Sarfatti was never in sympathy with the idea of a social realist art. She had a good eye, and during a honeymoon visit to Paris she acquired an enthusiasm for the painting of Cézanne and Toulouse-Lautrec. At a time when many Italian critics still considered the Impressionists to be dangerous innovators, she was a knowledgeable supporter of all the avant-garde movements of the early 1900s, from the Viennese Secession to Symbolism and Italian Divisionism. Her taste in painting did not evolve further after this period. She was an enthusiast for the early paintings of the Futurists, but she was dismayed when they fell under the influence of Cubism, and she could never accept abstract art. She appreciated Picasso’s genius, but preferred his more traditional figurative works. Her ideal remained that of Postimpressionist art, that is to say of a type of painting which would accept the Impressionist revolution in technique but restore the values of formal composition. But though at times she made excessive claims for Italian art and artists, she always remained aware of the wider European scene, and this saved her from the inward-looking provincialism which her later nationalist ideology might have fostered. She realized that if Italian art were to succeed, it must be known and appreciated abroad. Like many Italian intellectuals, she delivered her most ringing assertions of the primacy of Italian art with one eye on Paris.

  1. 1

    It seems, however, that a half-hearted attempt at suicide by Margherita’s brother gave Zangwill the idea for his story. See M. Sarfatti, Acqua Passata (Rocca San Casciano: Cappelli, 1955), p. 41.

  2. 2

    According to Sarfatti’s version, reproduced in the biography, it was this article which caused the breach between her and Kuliscioff. But the true reason seems more likely to have been the surfacing of Kuliscioff’s longcontained suspicion of Sarfatti’s lack of seriousness: “In a discussion, following a meeting of the group [of Socialist feminists] I was angered…by her indecent behavior as a rentière with 40,000 lire a year, incapable of making the least sacrifice, I won’t say of money, which would be too much for her given her avarice, but at least of her pastimes.” Carteggio Turati-Kuliscioff, Vol. III, edited by A. Schiavi and F. Pedone (Turin: Einaudi, 1977), p. 789.

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