Sarfatti, Margherita (1880–1961)

views updated

Sarfatti, Margherita (1880–1961)

Italian art critic, author, poet, and journalist who helped found the Italian art movement Novecento (Twentieth Century), and for almost two decades was Benito Mussolini's lover and influential adviser. Name variations: Margherita Sarfatti-Grassini; (pseudonyms) Cidie and El Sereno. Pronunciation: Sar-FAHT-tee. Born Margherita Grassini on April 8, 1880, in Venice, Italy; died on October 30, 1961, at her country home near Lake Como; daughter of Amedeo Grassini (a businessman, lawyer, and heir to a large fortune) and Emma (Levi) Grassini; educated at home by her mother and her Swiss governess; at 14, began to be tutored for a number of years by three of the most distinguished and cultured scholars and lecturers in Venice; married Roberto Sarfatti, on May 29, 1898; children: Roberto (1900–1918); Amedeo (b. June 24, 1902); Fiammetta (b. January 1909).

At 15, became a socialist (1895); after her marriage (1898), moved to Milan (1902); began writing for a number of feminist and socialist journals (1901); became art critic for the socialist newspaper Avanti! (1909); began an intermittent love affair with Mussolini (early 1913); left Socialist Party (October 1915); became cultural editor of Mussolini's newspaper, The People of Italy (December 1918), and managing editor of Hierarchy: A Political Review, co-founded with Mussolini (January 1922); was instrumental in founding the Novecento (Twentieth Century) art movement (autumn 1922); wrote the first biography of Mussolini, published in English (1925), then in Italian and titled Dux (1926); converted to Catholicism (1928); wrote articles for Hearst Press under Mussolini's name (April 1930–1934); toured Brazil and Argentina with Twentieth Century art exhibit (December 1930); ended love affair with Mussolini (late 1931); left positions at The People of Italy and Hierarchy (1932); made triumphant tour of U.S., culminating with a visit to the White House and the Roosevelts (March–June 1934); fled Italy (November 1938); sailed to Montevideo, Uruguay (October 1939); lived in Montevideo and Buenos Aires (1939–47); returned to Italy (March 1947).

Selected publications (all in Italian unless otherwise indicated):

The Feminist Militia in France (1915); The Burning Torch (1919); The Living and the Dead (1919); Tunisiaca (Things Tunisian, 1923); Achille Funi (1925); The Life of Benito Mussolini (in English, 1925, in Italian, titled Dux, June 1926); II palazzone (The Large Country House, 1929); The History of Modern Painting (1930); Daniele Ranzoni (1935); America: The Search for Happiness (1937); Giacomo Girolamo Casanova de Seingalt (in Spanish, 1943); Giorgione the Mysterious Painter (in Spanish, 1944); Titian or Faith in Life (in Spanish, 1944); Mussolini as I Knew Him (in Spanish, 1945); Casanova versus Don Giovanni (1950); Water Under the Bridge (1955); Undervalued Love (1958).

Although most famous as the biographer and lover of Benito Mussolini, dictator of Italy from 1922 to 1943, Margherita Sarfatti deserves to be remembered in her own right as one of the most influential Italian art critics and connoisseurs of the 20th century. She was a major figure in Italian cultural life for almost 50 years, and wrote two dozen books and thousands of newspaper articles, mostly on the subject of art. One of Italy's first women art critics, she played a key role in founding the post-World War I Twentieth Century art movement, which proved very influential during the 1920s. In part because of her relationship with Mussolini and in part because of her exceptional intelligence and learning, she became a virtual dictator of the arts during the '20s. Some dubbed her the "uncrowned queen of Italy."

She was born Margherita Grassini on April 8, 1880, in a 15th-century palace located in the Old Jewish Ghetto section of Venice. Her rich and cultured parents were devout Orthodox Jews, but they decided to give her a secular education. Though she never had any formal instruction, she received an exceptional schooling in history, art, and literature from her tutors. Her studies instilled in her an abiding belief in the crucial function that art plays, both in providing moral guidance for society and in demonstrating, to a greater degree than military conquests and political power, the greatness of a country.

When she was 15, a middle-aged professor fell in love with her while she was vacationing. She did not return his love, but she did succumb to his ideas, and converted to socialism. She herself soon fell in love with a brilliant Venetian lawyer, Cesare Sarfatti. Although he was 14 years her senior, she succeeded in convincing him to join the Socialist Party. Her father and mother opposed a marriage, but once Margherita had turned 18 and could no longer be legally prevented from marrying, they decided to accept the inevitable. Two sons, Cesare and Amedeo, and a daughter, Fiammetta Sarfatti , were born during the next 11 years.

The Sarfattis' move in October 1902 from beautiful and romantic Venice to modern Milan, the most progressive city in Italy, marked a new period in their lives. Sarfatti became more involved than ever in the political and cultural developments of the time. She joined the group of feminists and Socialists who met at the apartment of the famous Anna Kuliscioff , who along with her husband, the Socialist leader Filippo Turati, helped edit one of the leading Socialist journals. Since Sarfatti had always believed that women were the complete equals of men and should enjoy greater freedom, she became active in feminist journalism and politics. In 1912, she worked closely with Kuliscioff in the founding and publication of The Defense of Women Workers, a journal which espoused the cause of Socialist feminism. She also campaigned for sex education in the schools, legalization of divorce, and for a law to make fathers responsible for their illegitimate children.

In 1909, Sarfatti became art critic for the official Socialist Party newspaper Avanti! (Forward!). In her articles, she championed such schools of modern art as Post-Impressionism, the Viennese Secession, and Italian Futurism. She believed in bringing art to the masses, but rejected the idea of a social-realist art. As she was making her influence felt in newspaper and journal articles, she also founded an important salon which attracted many artists and writers. Her wealth, discriminating intelligence, and social connections enabled her to build up an important art collection for herself and to influence others in the collection of art.

In 1912, probably during a gathering at Kuliscioff's, Sarfatti met Benito Mussolini, the wild man of the Italian Socialist Party. In many ways, they were social and cultural opposites; Mussolini was the crude son of a small-town blacksmith and Margherita the polished daughter of a wealthy businessman. Nonetheless, Sarfatti and Mussolini immediately became attracted to each other. She was captivated by his energy, his violently aggressive personality, and his reckless bravado; he found fascinating her self-assurance, sophistication, and beauty. Sarfatti's full-figured, blonde looks were precisely the type that Mussolini found irresistible. Unlike many of her feminist or socialist friends, she did not affect a deliberately "unfeminine" or drab proletarian style of dress. Sarfatti loved stylish clothes, expensive perfumes, and fine jewelry, and all this Mussolini found appealing. A close friendship developed and then, in early 1913, they began a love affair. But the relationship was rocky and Mussolini continued to see many other women, including Rachele Guidi who had had daughter Edda (Ciano) with him in 1910 and married him around 1916. What kept Sarfatti and Mussolini together was as much their common political and publishing interests as physical attraction. In the autumn of 1913, Sarfatti became one of Mussolini's chief collaborators in producing a new journal, Utopia: A Biweekly Review of Italian Revolutionary Socialism. At the same time, Sarfatti worked actively to promote her husband's political career, and in November 1913 he won a seat in Parliament.

World War I transformed both Italy and Sarfatti's relationship with Mussolini. When the rest of Europe went to war in August 1914, Italy remained neutral, and neutrality also became the official policy of the Italian Socialist Party. Mussolini, editor of Avanti!, soon became uneasy with this passive approach and in October 1914 broke ranks to denounce German aggression and advocate support for the French, the Belgians, and those Italians still under the domination of Austria Hungary. This led to Mussolini's expulsion from the Socialist Party. Sarfatti and her husband supported Mussolini but hesitated to break openly with the Socialists. In January 1915, she traveled to France to see the war for herself. Her visits to wounded and mutilated soldiers in the hospitals made a deep impression on her. Over the spring and summer of 1915, she wrote an account of her trip to France, The Female Militia in France, which described how the women of France were heroically working to save their country from German barbarism. By the fall of 1915, Sarfatti had left the Socialist Party.

When I first met her she was the uncrowned queen of Italy. Now she is the crowned pauper of the exiles.

Alma Mahler

Swept up in the nationalist fervor, Margherita's young son Roberto joined the army in 1917, but died a few months later, in January 1918, leading Arditi, assault troops, against the Austrians. He was barely 17 years old. Roberto's death devastated the Sarfatti family, but brought Margherita and Mussolini closer together. In his newspaper The People of Italy, Mussolini glorified young Roberto as a symbol of patriotic heroism; he also provided Sarfatti emotional solace for her loss. Margherita turned away from her Socialist beliefs and embraced a fervent patriotism which alone seemed to justify the sacrifice of her son's life. Like Sarfatti, Mussolini was needier than ever before, isolated from his old allies on the left, but still without supporters on the right or a clear path to the future. Although details about Sarfatti and Mussolini's relationship during the war years are sketchy, sometime over the summer and fall of 1918, their earlier infatuation and friendship deepened into a profound love. According to his sister Edvige Mussolini , Benito referred to Margherita as his "Sail," a name conjuring up "images of the sea, of the sky and of adventure."

Sarfatti began to work constantly at The People of Italy, assuming considerable responsibility for its editorial and managerial policies, and, in December 1918, became cultural editor for the newspaper. In March 1919, together with Mussolini, she founded Ardita, a monthly literary review of Popolo d'Italia, and later in the month, attended the founding of the Fascist Movement. In January 1922, Sarfatti became managing editor of the important journal Gerarchia (Hierarchy), which succeeded Ardita as a source of cultural criticism and as an unofficial mouthpiece for Mussolini's political views. Although Mussolini was listed as the director, Sarfatti actually ran the journal, hiring its staff, seeking out and choosing its articles, and writing many of them herself. Besides playing a leading role in shaping Fascist cultural policy, Sarfatti loaned the movement large sums. When Mussolini made the difficult decision to stage a coup d'etat and seize power in October 1922, historians Cannistraro and Sullivan suggest that, at a critical point, Sarfatti bolstered him psychologically in following through on his risky plan.

The success of the Fascist March on Rome in pressuring the king to appoint Mussolini prime minister opened the way for Sarfatti to exercise more influence over Italian culture. Mussolini cared little for the visual arts, and allowed Sarfatti to act as his guide. In the chaotic, postwar era, she believed artists should abandon their individual "arbitrary" styles and work toward a "collective synthesis." She wanted a return to the great stylistic traditions of past Italian art, to an art which encouraged devotion to hierarchy, discipline, and order, much like Fascism itself. She came to believe that both classical, Roman art and certain types of Modern art embodied these values and traditions. In 1922, Sarfatti thought she had discovered the desired "collective synthesis" that she had written about earlier in the work of seven of her favorite painters, including Mario Sironi and Achille Funi. She picked up on the suggestion of one of the painters, and widely publicized the group as "the Italian Twentieth Century." In 1923 and again in 1926, she persuaded Mussolini to open exhibitions of her favored group, which came to include such men as Carlo Carrà, Giorgio Morandi, and Gino Severini. In the public's eye, Mussolini's appearances established Novecento (Twentieth Century) as the Fascist artistic movement.

During the 1920s, Sarfatti also served as a member of various governmental committees dealing with cultural matters. In 1924, Mussolini appointed her head of the Italian judging committee for the International Exposition of Decorative Arts in Paris; in addition, she served as vice-president of the exposition itself, and for these services the French government awarded her the medal of the Legion of Honor. While in Paris, she met the famous African-American dancer Josephine Baker , took an immediate liking to her, and invited Baker to visit her in Italy (which she eventually did).

Sarfatti's cultivation of La Joséphine was but one of many examples of her knack for collecting celebrities. Much of Sarfatti's influence during the '20s was exercised through her brilliant salon, where the famous mixed with young but promising unknowns. After the death of her husband Cesare in 1924, she moved to Rome. Here she proved an ideal salon hostess, a lively and brilliant conversationalist who knew how to draw even the most reclusive guests into the discussion. The list of Italian visitors to Sarfatti's salon included the playwright Pirandello, the inventor Marconi, and the novelist Alberto Moravia. Since her ambition to acquire, or create, celebrities was stronger than any desire for ideological consistency, she supported the careers of many artists and authors who did little to conform to Fascism or in fact opposed the regime. Virtually every distinguished foreign traveler who visited Rome in the late 1920s also called at Margherita's salon. These included French foreign minister Louis Barthou, and the authors André Gide and André Malraux. Sarfatti's close friend, the famous French writer Colette , often visited her in Rome and at her country home.

Sarfatti exerted great influence over the third Monza International Exhibition of Decorative Arts in 1927. As a member of the organizing committee, she used her experience of the Paris exhibit to transform the way the Monza exhibits were presented. For the first time in Italy, the Monza fair aimed to achieve a collaboration between architects and artists. The entire exhibit became a showcase for modern design. Ever since she had seen Melnikov's Soviet Pavilion and Le Corbusier's work at the Paris Expo, Sarfatti had been won over to the side of modernism, which had its counterpart in Italy in the rationalist architecture of the Gruppo 7 (Group of Seven). Although Sarfatti's reputation as "dictator of the arts" during the 1920s was exaggerated, it was in large measure due to her that modern art often enjoyed the support of the government. Her efforts therefore helped to raise the artistic quality of Fascist patronage.

More famous than her salon or her influence on art, however, was her role in creating the myth of Il Duce, of Mussolini the brilliant, if solitary, leader. In 1924, an Italian literary agent working on behalf of foreign publishing firms approached Sarfatti about writing a biography of Mussolini. Enthusiastic about the project, Mussolini supplied her with various private papers and documents. The first edition of her biography appeared in English in September 1925 as The Life of Benito Mussolini, with an introduction by Il Duce himself. In the Italian edition, which appeared in June 1926, the title of the book was simply Dux, the Latin form of Duce or "Leader." In Sarfatti's biography, Mussolini appears as a man destined for greatness who, by sheer force of will, rose above his poverty-stricken environment. He is a strong, ruthless leader devoid of ordinary human weakness or material self-interest. He is the true heir to the Roman Caesars. In the book, Sarfatti deliberately distorted and omitted aspects of Mussolini's career, such as his support for Fascist hooliganism. The photographs in Dux showed Mussolini's wide-ranging talents as party activist, soldier, newspaper writer, world diplomat, sports enthusiast, pilot, and racecar driver. On innumerable occasions in the following decades, the media repeated the photographic images first found in Sarfatti's biography.

Dux was a bestseller at home and abroad. Between 1926 and 1938, 17 editions were published in Italy. The book was translated into 18 languages, and according to some accounts, sold a million copies. It did more than any other book or article to shape the image of Mussolini abroad. It also made Sarfatti a great deal of money.

Already at the end of the '20s, signs began to appear that Sarfatti's personal relationship with Mussolini might be in jeopardy and her position in the Fascist state vulnerable. In response to an

outburst of Mussolini's anti-Semitism, the atheist Margherita converted to Catholicism in 1928. Then in early 1929 Rachele Guidi, Mussolini's legal wife, moved from Milan to Rome. Mussolini wished to project a clearer image of his family as good Catholics, now that the Lateran Accords had led the Vatican to recognize the state of Italy for the first time. He also wanted to keep a closer eye on his daughter Edda who, much to Mussolini's displeasure, had fallen in love with a Jewish lieutenant colonel. Rachele and her children hated Sarfatti and were now in a better position to obstruct her relationship with Mussolini. In January 1930, Sarfatti became the subject of a violent argument between Rachele and Benito, and Mussolini promised to break off their relationship. Moreover, by the summer of 1929, Mussolini had come to feel that his identification with Sarfatti's cherished Twentieth Century movement was an embarrassment, opening him up to unnecessary criticism.

In 1930, Margherita turned 50. No longer the beauty she had once been and prone to various ailments, she also increasingly put on weight even though she tried various dieting drugs to control her appetite. Mussolini hated obesity.

Sarfatti's articles began to appear more and more infrequently in The People of Italy; they ended altogether by the end of 1932. In December of that year, she left her position as director of Hierarchy. For years, Sarfatti had lived across the street from Mussolini's residence at Villa Torlonia; toward the end of 1931, she moved a number of blocks away. A further sign of estrangement came in early 1932, when Sarfatti waited for hours for an appointment with Mussolini, only to be informed that he would not receive her.

Despite the growing personal distance between them, on occasion Il Duce still sought her advice on issues regarding cultural policy. She also continued to ghostwrite articles for Mussolini, as she had done all during the 1920s. The Fascist regime persisted in valuing Sarfatti's knowledge of English and her journalistic skills. She became good friends with many members, especially American members, of the Rome press corps. Indeed, Adrian Lyttelton has judged her "probably the regime's most successful manager of public relations." In April 1930, she signed a four-year contract to write pieces under Mussolini's name (and approved by him) for the Hearst Press. This contract made both her and Il Duce a great deal of money.

In 1934, Sarfatti undertook a triumphant tour of the United States. Despite her estrangement from Mussolini, she was received in Washington, D.C., as if she were still the uncrowned queen of Italy. Sarfatti arrived with the warm recommendation of the American ambassador to Rome, who described her as "probably the best-informed woman in Italy" and someone who knew Mussolini's mind intimately. She was invited to tea at the White House where she spent an hour with Franklin D. Roosevelt and a hostile Eleanor Roosevelt . Her four-month tour, which included Cuba and Mexico as well as the U.S., was filled with a hectic schedule of lectures, interviews, and dinners. In June 1937, she used her experiences as the basis for a book entitled America: The Search for Happiness. On her return to Italy, when Sarfatti went to report to Il Duce on her meetings with Roosevelt, Hearst, and other prominent Americans, she expected a warm welcome. Instead, Mussolini shouted at her that "America does not count!" since its economic resources were not matched by its military forces, and he brusquely ended their interview.

Disturbed by reports that Sarfatti was gossiping about him, in May 1935 Mussolini ordered Italian newspapers to ignore her completely. Increasingly deprived of political influence, Margherita turned to writing and traveling. In 1930, she published a History of Modern Painting. In August–September 1931, she helped organize and gave lectures during an exhibition of Twentieth Century art which toured South America. In 1935, she published a biography of a 19th-century Italian artist, Daniele Ranzoni.

Despite the rocky nature of their relationship, Sarfatti continued to be loyal to Mussolini and Fascism. When Italy invaded Ethiopia, she put to good use her ties with American Ambassador Breckinridge Long, vigorously defending the Italian cause and carrying messages between Mussolini and the American embassy. In the end, Long advised President Roosevelt not to institute an oil embargo against Italy.

Sarfatti's political influence came to an end with Mussolini's proclamation of the Rome-Berlin Axis and his public adoption of anti-Semitic policies. On a personal level, Mussolini began a passionate love affair with the young Clara Petacci and felt less than ever before the need for Margherita's friendship. Sarfatti's last recorded visit with Mussolini was in the spring of 1938. She found him completely changed. Deeply disturbed by Mussolini's growing alliance with Hitler, and especially by the führer's triumphant visit to Rome in May 1938, Sarfatti fled Italy. This was about the same time (November 1938) that the Fascist Grand Council published a whole series of anti-Semitic decrees barring Jews from the professions and government, forbidding them to contract mixed marriages, and prohibiting them from employing non-Jews. Jews were expelled as well from the Fascist Party.

Margherita now began a life of exile, first in Paris and then in Montevideo and Buenos Aires. In return for the safety of her daughter and family in Rome, she kept silent about her relationship with Mussolini and her views on Fascist Italy. In Buenos Aires, she became friends with Victoria Ocampo , a prominent writer and the editor of Sud who hosted the most important cultural salon in the country. Sarfatti now socialized with prominent political and cultural figures, such as the modernist author Jorge Luis Borges. She also published criticism and travel articles, and books on the artists Giorgione and Titian. She finished a book on Casanova. In Mussolini as I Knew Him, Sarfatti tried to come to terms with her involvement with Il Duce and Fascism. She acknowledged her responsibility for believing in Fascism, and analyzed what she believed were the reasons that had led Mussolini to lose sight of the original goals of the Fascist movement. Margherita had originally thought of publishing Mussolini as I Knew Him in the United States, where she would probably have earned a considerable amount of money. But she lost her nerve and instead published the work in 14 installments in the Spanish-language paper Crítica during June–July 1945. The series drew little attention.

Petacci, Clara (c. 1915–1945)

Italian mistress of Benito Mussolini. Born around 1915; died near Como, Italy, on April 28, 1945.

In 1945, at the close of World War II, the Allied armies had fought their way up the peninsula and threatened to overrun all of northern Italy. In this desperate situation, Benito Mussolini tried to escape into Austria by joining a column of retreating German soldiers. Stopped by communist guerilla fighters near the northern tip of Lake Como, the Germans allowed them to search the convoy and seize Mussolini. On April 28, 1945, these partisans machine-gunned to death the 61-year-old Mussolini and his lover, Clara Petacci, who had insisted on joining him in his final moments.

In March 1947, Sarfatti returned to Italy. Her book Water Under the Bridge, published in 1955, was less a memoir of her own life than an account of the people she had known, with the exception of Mussolini, whom she did not mention. She ended her story in 1934. Adventurous and full of curiosity even at 76, in 1956 Sarfatti decided to travel to India, Ceylon, Malaya, Hong Kong, and Japan, even though none of her friends would agree to go with her. She died on October 30, 1961, in her country home, Il Soldo, near Lake Como.


Cannistraro, Philip. "Sarfatti-Grassini, Margherita," in Historical Dictionary of Fascist Italy.

——, and Brian R. Sullivan. Il Duce's Other Woman: The Untold Story of Margherita Sarfatti, Mussolini's Jewish Mistress and How She Helped Him Come to Power. NY: William Morrow, 1993.

Lyttelton, Adrian. "Mussolini's Femme Fatale," in The New York Review of Books. July 15, 1993, pp. 18–22.

suggested reading:

Marzorati, Sergio. Margherita Sarfatti: Saggio biografico. Como, 1990.

Richard Bach Jensen , Assistant Professor of History at Louisiana Scholars' College, Northwestern State University, Natchitoches, Louisiana