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“You oughta be in pictures”

Banca d’Italia showcases 75 years of women in art

 By Linda Falcone

The entrance to Towards Modernity, with a glimpse of  Salvatore Lega's Maternity

ph. Florence's Banca d'Italia

Towards Modernity [Verso la Modernità] is a survey show that encompasses 75 years of shifting culture. All but six of its works are painted by male artists who echo the winds of social change affecting female representation in art. From the iconic mother figure, to the ‘new nude’ and the burgeoning ‘modern woman’, this show at Florence’s Banca d’Italia, on via dell’Oriolo, is open for free guided tours through on-line appointment, until 10 March 2024. Curated by Anna Villari and Ilaria Sgarbozza, the exhibition displays paintings and sculpture that reflected and shaped the female experience in Italy from 1871 to the mid-1900s.


Angel of the Hearth?

The stairwell of the Banca d’Italia building is impressive to say the least – an imposing upward-moving swirl of marble that rises slowly, like the triumphant notes of an Italian march for unification. The Black Angel at the foot of the stairs stands out as a small but striking contrast to this otherwise stone-white world. “We chose to begin the Towards Modernity exhibition with this wonderful example of the Ritorno all’ordine movement,” says exhibition co-curator Anna Villari. “By the 1920s, artists in Italy were already responding to what they considered the destruction of figurative art by the avant-garde currents, and were calling for a return to the human figure, which was cleaner and sharper than in previous decades, as with The Black Angel.”

Maryla Lednicka-Szczytt's The Black Angel, 1922, ph. Florence's Banca d'Italia

In 1922, Polish sculptor Maryla Lednicka-Szczytt – who eventually made her living carving decorative figureheads for the bow of cruise ships – debuted in Paris during the city’s heyday, and while there, she worked with designer Adrienne Gorska, whose more famous sister is Tamara de Lempicka. Following Lednicka-Szczytt’s move to Italy and her solo exhibition in Milan, in 1926, she was highly acclaimed by critics and collectors. The Black Angel was purchased by entrepreneur Riccardo Gualino, whose enviable collection was later acquired by the Banca d’Italia.

Lednicka-Szczytt’s sculpture is thought to be a nod to the ballet Les Sylphides, which was performed in 1909 by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, featuring Chopin’s music. While in Italy, the artist frequented the ‘Novecento Group’, brought together by art critic Margherita Sarfatti, one of Mussolini’s lovers. A supporter of the Fascist Regime, Sarfatti was a friend to artists seeking what she called “modern classicism”. [Incidentally, Sarfatti – as a woman of Jewish ancestry – was later a victim of Mussolini’s 1939 Racial Laws and forced to flee to the United States. Her passage out of Italy was not blocked by government officials]. Despite Maryla Lednicka-Szczytt’s popularity between the two world wars, the sculptor met a regrettable end. After fruitlessly pursuing her art in New York in the early 1940s, she sank into poverty and oblivion. Unable to maintain her previous success, Lednicka-Szczytt committed suicide in 1947. Lednicka-Szczytt’s authorship of The Black Angel – which for decades was as overlooked as the artist herself – was rediscovered in 2013 by scholar Gioia Mori, after being incorrectly attributed to De Lempicka in the 1990s.


Mothers and matrons

The show’s more traditional section ‘Domestic Dimensions’ starts with a lovely 1881 work called Maternity. Salvatore Lega portrays his sister-in-law and nephew, drawing on one of Western Art’s most iconic themes: mother and child. Although the lady pictured has all the traditional sweetness of a Madonna, the discreet movement of her hand, as she re-fastens her collar post breast-feeding, brings the work into the modern realm of discrete realism.

Le due mammine, authored by Luciano Ricchetti in 1940, is interesting from a historical perspective. Its protagonist looks like an ancient Roman matrona in modern garb, holding a well-fed infant on her lap. This matron and child share the scene with a much younger little mamma – as the painting’s title suggests – who is sitting in the lower left corner, caring for her baby doll. Ricchetti’s painting is best read in the context of the Battle for Births [1925-1938], a propaganda-based operation and economic incentives campaign spearheaded by Mussolini, which strove to increase Italy’s population from 40 million, in 1927 to 60 million by 1950. A nation, to be strong, needed many men; and women could participate in Italy’s new-fangled imperial expansionism by bringing many souls into the world.

Not far away, is another matronly figure, this time with no child in tow. Ardengo Soffici’s Water Girl, an imposing and very successful painting, fits well into the Ritorno all’ordine movement. “In this period, there was also a return to depicting Italic or Etruscan women. Artists focused on Italy’s peasant culture and its attachment to the land,” Villari explains. “Even the ceramic wares and the jug in this painting highlight Italian traditions, albeit in a modern way.”

In this section we also find the exhibition’s ‘posterchild’, A Girl Sewing. Villari admits that the decision to make this 1927 oil the show’s keynote image sparked debate. Was the picture too traditional? In the end, they went with it. Leonetta Pieraccini Cecchi’s delightful, faceless rendition can be compared to Vanessa Bell’s Portrait of Virginia Wolf. Pieraccini Cecchi was an artist and tongue-in-cheek writer whose published diaries immortalised the top intellectuals of her day – she was even married to one, Emilio Cecchi.

Starting in 1902, Pierracini Cecchi studied with iconic Macchiaioli painter and Accademia di Belli Arti professor Giovanni Fattori – just as women were starting to unbar the academy’s doors. “Fattori taught freedom,” Villari says. That is precisely why the anti-academy master was relegated to teaching the Women’s Section, which was seen as a punishment – by administrators, not necessarily by Fattori himself. In A Girl Sewing, viewers can revel in the figure’s bare feet – women had conquered the domestic sphere many centuries earlier, but finally, they were allowed to feel at home there.


Installation shot of 'Towards Modernity' with Luciano Richetti's Le due mammine in the background,

ph. Florence's Banca d'Italia

The nudes in the room

It is impossible to explore art by women in twentieth-century Italy without wandering through Felice Casorati’s somewhat eerie moonscape. His desexualised, almost robotic nude on show evidences a huge change from more traditional portrayals of female nudes in Italy. This 1937 canvas is displayed in comparison with a softer but still modern nude, created in 1928, by his former student Marisa Mori, a Florentine painter best known for her ‘art affairs’ with short-lived Futurism and its second iteration Areal Painting – in a world where flight was new and speed a path to follow. Casorati’s Scuola Libera di Pittura in Turin – set up in 1927, largely thanks to Gualino’s funding – was quite the opposite of speed, however. In the exhibition catalogue, Villari describes Casorati’s work, “His cold, suspended atmospheres in elementary and geometrical settings, along with his intellectual rigour, present a modernity that is a far cry from the changeability of the Impressionists and the dynamism of the Futurists.” In person, Anna points to what is arguably the most exciting nude in the room. It is by Nella Marchesini – Casorati’s first pupil, who was eventually asked to manage the school for a period, along with fellow-artist Lalla Romano.

Displayed on a table at eye-level, Marchesini’s bold nude, from 1928, was a practice piece. “She was exercising her hand,” Villari explains, “She painted on both sides, because she was saving on materials. The nude on the front recalls Mantegna’s Dead Christ [in Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera] and the woman on the verso is a nod to Giorgione’s Tempest.” Interestingly, the flip-side is painted upside-down and made more easily viewable thanks to a large mirror set on the table. It makes for a simple but ingenious solution, in a show where, overall, the works fit well in their space.

Installation shot of 'Towards Modernity' with Nella Marchesini's practice piece in the foreground

ph. Florence's Banca d'Italia

Marchesini achieved considerable acclaim at the Venice Biennale and Rome’s Quadriennale during her time and, like many women painters of her day, she modelled for other artists. In the words of her painter friend Enrico Paulucci, “She looks like she just stepped out of a Piero della Francesca panel”. As far as her own reflections on life and painting are concerned, Marchesini writes, “Art is the polar star, one of constant devotion, defended from the burdens of everyday life, and in harmony with our lives’ affections.”


This article was originally published in Restoration Conversations, Issue 4, WINTER 2023. Read full issue here.


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