Mussolini’s Femme Fatale

II Duce's Other Woman

by Philip V. Cannistraro and Brian R. Sullivan
Morrow, 685 pp., $25.00
Margherita Sarfatti
Margherita Sarfatti; drawing by David Levine


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.…

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