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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

1.

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.

In the years before World War I, Sarfatti’s salon became a major source of attraction for artists and writers. She moved with ever greater assurance in the world of art galleries and collectors, using her wealth and her connections to extend the range of her patronage. Cannistraro points out that the Ruskinian aspiration to make art the instrument of a new collective morality was carried over by Sarfatti into her Fascist days. But in reality the circle within which she moved was that of the cultivated, progressive section of the Milanese industrial bourgeoisie. She was an important collector herself, and she introduced the artists of whom she approved to other wealthy patrons. This aspect of her career could perhaps have had more extensive and systematic treatment, although Cannistraro has uncovered some interesting details.3

The frustration of the authors’ attempts to recover the Sarfatti-Mussolini correspondence has undoubtedly handicapped their reconstruction of the relationship between the two. On the whole, they succeed in giving a much clearer and fuller picture of its ups and downs than was previously available. However, there are difficulties in the account of the years between 1912 and 1918, when their love affair was intermittent. This was the crucial period during which Mussolini rose to power in the Socialist Party, took over Avanti!, and then broke with the Socialists over participation in the war; he founded his own newspaper, the Popolo d’Italia, advocating Italian intervention, joined the army, and, at the end of the war, began to organize his followers, largely veterans, in what became the Fascist movement.

Sarfatti worked with him on Avanti! and by 1917 she too had broken with the Socialist Party and was contributing to the Popolo d’Italia, but just what happened between them at this time is far from clear. In chapters on the period Brian Sullivan draws on Sarfatti’s later versions of what Mussolini thought and did. How much can we rely on them? Her own autobiography, Acqua Passata, tactfully avoids the subject of Mussolini altogether. In 1945, however, she published a series of articles in a Buenos Aires newspaper under the title “Mussolini as I knew him.”4 Sullivan quotes this source extensively to describe Sarfatti’s first reactions to Mussolini.

Margherita felt herself drawn to him. Mussolini’s luminous eyes, the cruel line of his mouth, and most of all, the coiled energy that he radiated made a compelling impression upon her.… She saw him a few nights later at a concert, where she caught him staring brazenly at her. To Margherita, Mussolini’s eyes seemed to be burning. It was clear that their disagreements about art would not keep them apart.

If the description of their fatal attraction reads like a trashy romantic story it is because that, essentially, is what it is. We are even told by the authors that, while at first Mussolini reminded Sarfatti of a “jousting knight,” later on she came to the conclusion that “he put me in mind rather of Savonarola, by reason of the strange fanatical gleam of his eyes and by the imperious curve of his nose.” A sense of the ridiculous is not Sullivan’s strong point.

Sullivan also draws heavily on Sarfatti’s notorious Life of Mussolini, published in English in 1925.5 This was an unashamedly propagandist work, designed to create the image of a dominant personality who was destined from his earliest childhood for great things. In private, both Mussolini and Sarfatti herself spoke disparagingly of the book. It cannot be taken seriously as a source, except where it is confirmed by other accounts. Long ago, writers such as Gaetano Salvemini and Gaudens Megaro6 exposed the pretentiousness and falsity of her version of Mussolini’s early life and education. Yet Sullivan writes, for example, that Schopenhauer was one of the authors whom Mussolini found particularly congenial and that he adopted Pareto’s debating style—claims that seem unlikely to say the least. Long quotations about the feelings and actions of Mussolini, and other contemporary figures such as Turati and Kuliscioff, are reproduced directly from the Life, with no suggestion that the passage of time and the propagandist intention of the text might detract from their authenticity.

Fortunately, when it comes to the postwar years, the authors bring the personal relationship between Mussolini and Margherita into much better focus. They argue convincingly that the psychological stresses of the war made the pair more dependent on each other. In particular, Sarfatti was seeking emotional solace after the death at seventeen of her eldest son, Roberto, in battle in January 1918. He was awarded a posthumous gold medal for valor, and his heroic end doubtless heightened Sarfatti’s devotion not only to Mussolini but to the cause of fascism, as a movement committed to defending the patriotic heritage of the war. Two weeks after his death she wrote: “We draw tight around you, Mussolini: make sure, you who can, that so much sacrifice bears its precious fruit.” This emotional response helps to explain the intensity of their relationship in the postwar years.

Between 1922 and 1929, Sarfatti probably saw more of Mussolini than did his wife, Rachele, who stayed behind in Milan when he moved to Rome. It is not possible to doubt that Mussolini’s feelings were deeply engaged. At the height of the affair, he appears more affectionate and human in his response toward his Vela (sail), as he called her, than his reputation or official image might suggest. His sister Edvige commented that “he loved even those feminine qualities or defects for which he had always maintained…indifference or contempt.” But in the end the cold and ruthless side of his nature reasserted itself. The story Sullivan and Cannistraro tell of how Mussolini turned away from Sarfatti early in the 1930s reinforces what we know from other sources about his increasing isolation and rejection of human sympathies as he came to identify more and more with his role as the infallible Duce. Sarfatti’s bitterness comes through most vividly in the judgment recorded by the writer Corrado Alvaro. When asked by two friends for her real opinion of Mussolini, “she murmured, he is a thug.”7 One might suspect, though, that originally his brutality may have had its attractions for Sarfatti.

Another serious issue on which this biography fails altogether to convince is that of the extent of Sarfatti’s influence. Mussolini had little time for the visual arts, although he appreciated that they could be useful politically, and there is no reason to doubt that Sarfatti acted as his guide. She certainly also helped to win him support in the milieu of the Milanese artistic and intellectual avant-garde, although one must remember that the ties between Futurism and fascism existed independently, and remained outside her control. As editor of the literary magazine Ardita, and later of the much more important Gerarchia, she helped to enlist and advertise the sympathies of writers and intellectuals for the movement. In the entire field of culture and public relations, her intelligence and her contacts were extremely useful to Mussolini.

But the biographers make bold claims for her political and ideological influence which are not supported by solid evidence and appear implausible, as when they attribute to her the inspiration for his adopting the theme of romanitaà—Fascist Italy as the heir of ancient Rome. In view of the diffusion of Roman rhetoric among the Italian educated classes, it would have been surprising if Mussolini had not hit on this way of glorifying his regime. If he needed help, the archaeologists and the classics professors were only too ready to give it to him.8

It is even more remarkable to find her being given credit for no less a decision than his commitment to the March on Rome in October 1922. It is one thing to suggest that she may have helped to bolster psychologically his very uncertain resolve to go through with it, but quite another to attribute to her a preeminent influence on his decision. Mussolini would not have been the formidable politician he was if he had allowed himself to be swayed by someone whose political experience and intuition were so much inferior to his own. It is a pity that, by overstating their case, the authors run the risk of creating skepticism about the very real importance that Sarfatti had both in cultural policy, and in the creation of the myth of the Duce.

Judged as propaganda, Sarfatti’s Life of Mussolini was an enormous success. It did more than any other work to shape the image of Mussolini abroad.9 Sarfatti capitalized on this initial success by the assiduity with which she courted American opinion. She became Mussolini’s ghost writer, and did much to shape his image in the American press. She was a close friend of the head of the Rome United Press bureau, Thomas Morgan, who published a series of articles by Mussolini with titles like “Mussolini Takes Life on Jump,” describing his working day, his diet, and his exercise routine. Whether or not Sarfatti actually had a hand in writing the articles, they certainly reinforced the stereotypes created by the Life. She was probably the regime’s most successful manager of public relations. Among other advantages, her work as a ghost writer earned her and Mussolini a considerable supplementary income. Mussolini’s share of the proceeds in some years amounted to almost four times his official salary as prime minister.

Sarfatti drove a hard bargain. In 1930 she switched her allegiance from the United Press to an even more profitable arrangement with William Randolph Hearst—a great admirer of Mussolini. She concluded the deal with his wife Millicent over the heads of the local correspondents of the Hearst press. Although she earned the reputation of being “very difficult to deal with on money questions,” Sarfatti’s journalistic skills and her command of English continued to make her indispensable even when her personal influence on the Duce had waned.10 Her tour of the US in 1934 was a triumphant success; she was feted in Washington as if she were Mussolini’s consort, and had an hour-long interview with FDR, although she found Eleanor hostile. She impressed the American ambassador in Rome, Breckinridge Long, who described her as “the best-informed woman in Italy,” and her persuasive advocacy was most useful during the critical period of the Abyssinian War, when Long advised against an oil embargo.

Mussolini, however, was at best ambivalent in his response to these services. He resented equally Sarfatti’s continued role as a mediator and his need to conciliate the United States, Hence his outburst in 1934, when she reported to him on her US visit: “America does not count!” At the same time, with less success, she opened a private diplomatic channel with her friend Baron von der Schulenburg, an associate of Franz von Papen’s, through which she tried to convince Mussolini of Hitler’s deceptions with regard to Austria. But all this was ultimately to no avail. Sarfatti’s worst enemies, for both personal and political reasons, were Galeazzo Ciano, who became foreign minister in 1936, and his wife Edda, who was Mussolini’s daughter. While Edda froze her out from Roman society, Galeazzo encouraged Mussolini’s growing hostility to the United States, and finally, in 1938, persuaded him to stop contributing to the New York Herald Tribune. The account of these years makes fascinating reading, because Sarfatti’s private drama is intimately bound up with the larger public drama of Mussolini’s relationship to Hitler and National Socialism.

2.

Once Mussolini was in power, Sarfatti had no qualms about exploiting her reputation as the woman behind the throne to win a unique position of influence over the world of the arts. She reached the height of her apparent power between 1926 and 1929, after she had moved from Milan to Rome, where her salon was beyond doubt the most brilliant in the capital. She succeeded in conveying the message that her patronage offered political protection and a road to success at a relatively low cost in conformity. It worked for authors as well as artists. She was courted with particular assiduity by writers who were vulnerable to the accusation of antifascism, like Moravia, or the Calabrian novelist Corrado Alvaro. Alvaro explained very clearly what was in it for him: “Because of her natural curiosity to meet people and her cultural eclecticism, she offers me a safety anchor perhaps without knowing it. It’s enough for people to see me in her house.”

In fact, she did more than this for him; her support was decisive in winning him a 50,000 lira literary prize for his novel Gente di Aspromonte. Alvaro testified to her intellectual curiosity, and recorded his disgust at the rapidity with which she was dropped by Roman society once she was known to have lost the Duce’s favor. But the fictional portrait which he later drew of her in his novel Tutto è accaduto was far from flattering. He made fun of her “incredible violet costume,” which reminded him of a bishop’s, and the “clattering” of her innumerable bracelets, and described her imperious and possessive manner.11 One can understand how her heavily advertised patronage often inspired resentment rather than gratitude. It seems, though, that her relationships with the artists of her circle were often more sincere and genuinely affectionate.

La Sarfatti’s ambition to acquire, or create, celebrities who would grace her salon was often stronger than any desire for ideological consistency. Nevertheless, she aimed at much more than mere social éclat. Her ambition was no less than to shape the visual style of the regime and the epoch. In early 1922, she was already calling for a new “collective synthesis” with a clear political significance. “Not only in sculpture, not only in painting, has unity been broken. We aspire to restore it, and not in art alone. In reaction to anarchy is born a nostalgia for authority.” According to Cannistraro, “She tried to inspire Mussolini to remold Italian culture according to her own vision of modernity.” But how consistent was this vision?

Sarfatti’s chosen instrument was the Novecento Italiano movement, which reflected a much broader tendency, the “return to order” of the Franco-Italian avant-garde.12 Between 1922 and 1926 the Novecento expanded from a project for a group exhibition into a movement which aimed to achieve a kind of artistic monopoly of the middle ground between Futurism and traditionalism. At no point in its history did it really embody a unified style. One can, however, identify certain dominant ideas: the synthesis between tradition and modernity, a return to “classic” schemes of composition and solid, “architectural” volumes.13

Sarfatti was able to retain a controlling influence over the organization of the movement with the help of the painters Mario Sironi, Achille Funi, and other trusted members of her inner circle. Mussolini’s speech opening the 1926 exhibition (largely written by Sarfatti) appeared to give the movement the stamp of official approval. However, her victory contained the seeds of defeat. The Novecento compromise attracted criticism from both left and right, and Mussolini began to feel that his public identification with the movement was an embarrassment. In July 1929, after the Novecento had been attacked by members of the Fascist old guard as a decadent current of “French and German origin,” he issued a stinging rebuke in a letter to Sarfatti:

This attempt to make people think that the artistic position of Fascism is represented by your Novecento is both futile and a lie…you are…shameless in mixing my name as a statesman with your artistic inventions.

Once it became clear that the Novecento was not under Mussolini’s protection, attacks came in from all sides and the movement began to disintegrate.14

The decline of the Novecento was also the sign of a shift in the nature and organization of patronage under the regime. With the creation of the Corporate State, the Artists’ Syndicates turned into a formidable bureaucratic machine, which organized both regional and national exhibitions. Yet, under the discreet management of the painter Cipriano E. Oppo, they did not attempt to impose any orthodox line. Indeed, many artists may have felt that the Syndicates demanded less of a price in conformity than the more pretentious Novecento. At the same time, other cultural bureaucrats maneuvered Sarfatti out of her positions of influence in the Biennale and elsewhere. All this took place at a time when, with the onset of the great slump, the balance was shifting decisively from private to public patronage. These developments spelled the decline of the informal, “feminine,” methods of Sarfatti and other queens of the salon.15

Certainly, Sarfatti improved the quality of the regime’s artistic patronage, although she may also have encouraged an unhealthy dependence upon it. She was a friend and a patron to some of the most interesting artists of the period, such as the painter Mario Sironi and the architect Giuseppe Terragni.16 Both were committed Fascists,17 and both had a leading role in the 1932 Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista (Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution). Although Sarfatti had no hand in organizing it, the Mostra corresponded to her vision of a modern political art which would convey an image of “domination, audacity and empire.”18 At the same time, Sarfatti fought with some courage against pressures for a crudely realistic art of overtly uplifting political content, on the Nazi model, which came from a wing of the Fascist Party led by the appalling vulgarian Roberto Farinacci.

Cannistraro is interesting about the change in Sarfatti’s outlook toward architecture and the decorative arts produced by the 1925 Paris Expo. Previously a supporter of the pompous, rhetorical eclectic style of Armando Brasini, a leading exponent of romanità, she had to admit that his Italian pavilion could not stand comparison with the simplicity of Melnikov’s Soviet Pavilion, or with the purist elegance of Le Corbusier. So she went over to the side of the rationalists of the Grupposette, who had been impressed by Le Corbusier’s work. 19 Together with Sironi, she had a hand in reforming the Monza Exhibition of Decorative Arts. The emphasis shifted away from regional crafts and the exhibition became a showcase for modern design. This may well have been her most effective contribution to raising aesthetic standards.

If Sarfatti had not been Jewish, she could presumably have retained a respected position on the fringes of the Fascist elite. Between 1934 and 1937 she was still invited to receptions and had an occasional meeting with Mussolini. She had little desire to be forced into a defense of her Jewish identity. In the late 1920s, when she realized that it was a liability, she underwent an opportunistic conversion to Catholicism, and she tried to dissuade her friends from annoying Mussolini by their support of Zionism. But if such prudent accommodation could satisfy bienpensant and Catholic opinion, it was, of course, quite fruitless in the face of Nazi racism. By 1937, Mussolini had come to feel that even Sarfatti’s part in his early life posed a political and psychological threat. He cut her out of his diaries. In doing so, he was, it is not too much to say, excising a part of himself. In her last recorded meeting with him, in the spring of 1938, Sarfatti found Mussolini changed beyond recognition; even his style of speech had altered. Hitler’s triumphant visit to Italy in May 1938 finally convinced her that the time had come to go. Canny and resourceful, she carefully laid her plans for escape. Not for her the sacrifice of gold to the Patria at the time of the Abyssinian War; she was already hoarding it in anticipation of her own departure.

In exile in Paris and Argentina, Sarfatti was never badly off, although, like many rich people in the postwar period, she spent a lot of time complaining about her relative impoverishment. She did not even have to sell the diamonds that she had smuggled out of Italy. If many of her American friends now found her something of an embarrassment, she never lacked for interesting company. In Buenos Aires she made friends with Victoria Ocampo, the editor of Sud, and met Borges. So one cannot regard her as altogether a victim. And yet she had been forced into exile, defeated and deceived by the man and the movement she had served with all too much intelligence and persistence. What, finally, one admires, in spite of all her pretensions and all her mistakes in judgment about fascism, are her stubborn vitality and what she described as her “anachronistic vocation for happiness,” qualities that come through clearly in Il Duce’s Other Woman. Although it has some serious flaws, it is a fascinating biography of a remarkable woman.

Letters

The ‘Other Woman’ November 18, 1993

  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.

  3. 3

    Most of Sarfatti’s collection has been dispersed; for her aims as a collector, see A. Longhetti, “La collezione Sarfatti—Una vita in una raccolta,” in Arte svelata; collezionismo privato a Como dall’Ottocento a oggi, edited by L. Caramel (Milan: Mazzotta, 1987), pp. 105–106. She believed that “one must be partisan and take risks”; she was clear in her preferences and in her exclusion of artists whom she did not consider of the right tendency. Perhaps for this reason, she greatly upset Gino Severini by twice visiting his studio in Paris without buying anything. The history of private patronage in the interwar period has yet to be written; it is interesting that Sarfatti persuaded an industrialist to pay a fixed stipend to two of her favorites, Achille Funi and Arturo Martini.

  4. 4

    The articles appeared in Spanish under the title “Mussolini: Como lo conocí“; Sarfatti abandoned her original intention to publish them in the United States, and dropped the first words of the title, which were to have been My Fault.

  5. 5

    The Italian version, under the more dramatic title Dux, was published in 1926.

  6. 6

    The author of the still valuable account of Mussolini’s early life, Mussolini in the Making (Houghton Mifflin, 1938).

  7. 7

    C. Alvaro, Quasi una vita (Milan: Bompiani, 1960) p. 110; Sullivan has misread this passage. He makes out that Sarfatti is recalling what she said to her friends on first meeting Mussolini, whereas it is clear that her judgment refers to the present (1933).

  8. 8

    See, among other works, L. Canfora, Ideologie del classicismo (Turin: Einaudi, 1990).

  9. 9

    It was translated into eighteen languages, and in Italy Dux went through seventeen editions in thirteen years.

  10. 10

    In 1931, Hearst raised no objections to printing an article in which Mussolini called for a “united front” between America and Italy “against the menace of the black and yellow peoples,” but in the following year he flatly refused to publish a call for the cancellation of Italy’s war debts to the US.

  11. 11

    C. Alvaro, Tutto è accaduto (Milan: Bompiani, 1961), p. 175.

  12. 12

    See K. E. Silver, Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1914–1925 (Princeton University Press, 1989). There have been a number of excellent studies of the Novecento Italiano and its relationship to the Fascist regime, and Cannistraro has put them to good use. Among recent contributions, see particularly E. Braun, “Mario Sironi and the idea of a Fascist art,” in Italian Art in the Twentieth Century, edited by E. Braun (Prestel Verlag/Royal Academy, 1989), pp. 173–180.

  13. 13

    See C. Gian Ferrari, “Realismo magico e Novecento: contatti e confluenze,” in Realismo magico, edited by M. Fagiolo dell’ Arco, (Milan: Mazzotta, 1988), p. 83.

  14. 14

    See the complaint of the secretary of the movement, Alberto Salietti: “There is such confusion in the artistic field that we can no longer understand anything. The Academy tugs from one side, the Sindacati from another, the young from their end and the old from theirs, and everyone pulls at the same time against the Novecento” (p. 380).

  15. 15

    See the acute comments by Victoria De Grazia in her book, How Fascism Ruled Women: Italy, 1922–1945 (University of California Press, 1992), p. 230.

  16. 16

    Terragni designed the austere memorial to her son Roberto, completed in 1938.

  17. 17

    Sironi became the regular cartoonist for the Popolo d’Italia in 1921, probably thanks to Sarfatti’s recommendation. He also designed the covers of the magazine Gerarchia, which she edited. As an illustrator, Sironi evolved an original artistic language through the use of “solid cubic masses and strong contrasts of light and shadow with few intermediate tones,” which corresponded to the uncompromising, direct, brutally affirmative character which Mussolini attributed to his own oratory. (See E. Braun, “Illustrations of Propaganda: The Political Drawings of Mario Sironi,” Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, Vol. 3, Winter 1987, pp. 92–94).

  18. 18

    See M. Stone, “Staging Fascism: the exhibition of the Fascist Revolution,” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 28, No. 2 (April 1993), pp. 217–220.

  19. 19

    The most important members of the group were Terragni and the partnership of Luigi Figini and Gino Pollini.

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