From correspondence between Fernanda Wittgens and Margherita Sarfatti.
An exchange of correspondence between two great women known for their determination, on opposite sides of the political divide yet deeply bound to one another. Two tireless writers, their correspondence occasionally tinged with irony, they spoke of art in both professional and personal terms in the postwar years.
Fernanda Wittgens and Margherita Sarfatti: the former a Valkyrie, the latter the former lover of a dictator; the former an active member of the Resistance, the latter the voice of Fascism; the former imprisoned in 1944 for helping Jews to escape from Italy, the latter a Jew who fled the country herself, only returning in 1947.
Despite their apparent incompatibility, the two women exchanged a prolific correspondence on art in the postwar years. Behind their expert discussion of technical aspects such as loans, insurance and conservation, their letters reveal an unexpected friendliness, respect, solidarity and warmth.
We do not know whether they ever became great friends, despite Sarfatti’s friendship with Wittgens’ cousin Gianni Mattioli and his family, and despite Wittgens’ dealings with Sarfatti’s daughter Fiammetta. A twenty-three year age gap and a certain formal aloofness lay between them, but between the lines we can detect a certain mutual admiration and sincere affection.
This hitherto unpublished correspondence was discovered in a storeroom in the Pinacoteca along with Ettore Modigliani’s letters, which his wife had entrusted to Wittgens in 1947. This uniquely valuable correspondence is currently undergoing restoration and conservation.
The letters focus primarily on the conservation, loan and return of works of art and on those works’ provenance and condition, all of which is of relatively little interest to the lay reader today. For this reason, the extracts below omit most of the technical details contained in the correspondence in order to focus on the passages that reveal the spontaneity and warmth pervading the two women’s bond of friendship.
24 May 1950
The last carriage has finally left for Venice and Boccioni’s The Mother and Russolo’s Fog have been despatched to Venice […] The exhibition is making headway in the complicated French circles. Speaking on behalf of the French authorities as a whole, George Salle thanked Italy for finally sending a historic exhibition illustrating the succession of artistic movements that flourished in the prewar years. To be honest, France could have authorised a fuller exhibition rather than this minimal affair in the confined spaces of the Museo d’Arte Moderna. But winning people over abroad is invariably a difficult and lengthy business, as of course you yourself know well, having done so much to promote Italian art. Please remember me to Fiammetta and receive my heartfelt best wishes and, once again, my gratitude for your valuable and truly professional cooperation.
7 February 1951
Reply to a letter dated 13 December complaining of damage to the frame of Boccioni’s The Mother, which was on loan to the exhibition.
The delay is a very important matter: the promotion of Italian art. […] The frame of The Mother has been lost at the Biennale but Gemelli, the packer, remembers putting one in its place. […] I have been fighting tooth and nail with the bureaucrats to revive the right to give everything to the Office other than life itself, and I hope to be successful. With my very best wishes.
4 March 1951
Dear Fernanda, dear to my heart and to the heart of Brera,
Everyone has received their pictures back from Zurich in Switzerland, yet I have not! “What is this all about?” as De Amicis would said. I anxiously await their arrival and I trust you will be able to find the frame of The Mother because it certainly left here with its frame. I have been deprived of my pictures for over a year and I really think it is time for the sheep to return to the fold, without my losing the frame too, do you not agree? I embrace you, I am very fond of you and I hope to see you in Milan and in Soldo, my dear Soldo, in the holidays when you too, tireless woman that you are, will be taking a little well-deserved rest.
Your very own Affa.
P.S.: I do not know whether you have read them, but in a French newspaper I read lofty words of praise from a critic extolling the renovation of Brera. Congratulations!
5 February 1954
Postcard, front: Monte Quirinale
I am very surprised that my pictures have not come back from Zurich yet and that I have heard nothing more about them in such a long time! And what can you tell me about the frame, my dear friend? The frame of Boccioni’s The Mother, which was sent to you for London with a frame and returned to me without! In Venice they claim never to have had it. I implore you, my dear and learned friend, to investigate the matter! I embrace you, and beg you to convey my best wishes to the Mattioli, who betrayed me in not coming to Rome.
26 December 1954
[[after a lengthy technical discussion]
In your letter I have just noticed that you address me using the formal “Lei” while for some time now we have used the informal “tu” in conversation. It is a problem with which I find myself constricted [sic] and uncertain, caught between friendliness and respect: Most Illustrious Professor, whom should I heed, my friend who makes me want to use the “tu” form, or the official figure revered and esteemed through use of the “Lei” form? Unsure which to use, my dear Fernanda, I shall resort to the “voi” form, but in any event I embrace you and wish you all happiness, while remaining your most faithful and respectful servant.
3 March 1955
My dearest Fernanda,
You unspeakable fiend, you came to Rome, you traitor! And I knew nothing about it, and you promised me you would set aside time for a luncheon, a dinner or some other moment in your erudite company. Yet I never saw you, and learnt about it only later!! Oh bitter disappointment! Forgive me if I trouble you. I need once again to have recourse to your endless expertise and kindness. The insurance company is kicking up a tremendous fuss [followed by two pages of technical details].
Thank you, my dear, thank you. My infinite thanks!.
9 March 1955
I was unable to do all the things that I had planned to do in Rome because I had to take to my bed immediately after the conference […] I am sorry that your letter was left lying on my desk here. No one dared to stand in for me, despite my strict orders to open my mail and so on. What can one do about it? “Ad impossibilia nemo tenentur [Nobody is held to the impossible]”, and one of life’s impossibilia is getting a public-sector office to function like a private-sector office.
On 19 April 1955, Wittgens’ secretary wrote to Sarfatti to inform here of a delay in the shipment of Ranzoni’s painting.
On 24 March 1955, in Wittgens’ absence, Dell’Acqua wrote to ensure Sarfatti that her pictures’ return from Zurich was imminent.
Easter 1955 - 10 April
Can you see, through a telescope, the blush on my idle forehead? It is Easter and, I confess, I have sinned. My absolution lies in this sincere act of contrition, this mea culpa, which I address to you with devotion and, yes, despite appearances, with gratitude and thanks, endless thanks! Of the entire business – a panel by Ranzoni, damaged, alas!, to be taken in hand by Pelliccioli in accordance with your learned, friendly, wise and precious advice – I have heard nothing more. With hands clasped in prayer and on bended knee, I pray you to cast your expert eye on the work and to keep it under your watchful supervision […]
And when we have resolved the first Ranzoni issue, we shall also resolve the no less solemn (albeit less bitter) issue of the “tu – Lei” forms between us. I myself favour “tu” on account of the liking I have always felt for you! But there is now this new admiration! Best, if belated, wishes for Easter, for spring, for today, tomorrow and always. You must now promise me in advance to come, God willing and with no expense spared, to visit me in Soldo this summer.
Thank you again, and my heartfelt greetings.
Also, please convey my very best wishes to the dear Mattioli family!
15 April 1955
So telepathy clearly does exist! I have been leading a very busy life over the past few weeks because, as though the Bonnard Exibition [REF] were not enough, having deprived me of the cooperation of my most important assistant, Dr. Russoli, I have also had to concern myself with the Etruscan Exhibition which opens on th 27th of this month. This has made it impossible for me to supervise the Workshop, but yesterday, in a moment of respite, Pelliccioli [the restorer known for his restoration of Leonardo’s Last Supper] showed me the Ranzoni, which is now in perfect condition. […] Thank you for all your kind words, which are truly too flattering for me, but I see that I cannot persuade you and so I acquiesce!
18 April 1955
Very well done, a thousand thanks for everything. I am so happy to hear what you say about the restoration and your personal and authoritative inspection of it. Please also thank Pelliccioli on my behalf. But are we sure that the insurance is in place? […] Many thanks and best wishes. I would like to see The Etruscans! When does it open and how long does it last?
Affectionate best wishes.
1 May 1955
The Ranzoni has returned home and the restoration looks very successful to me. […] Greetings and infinite, affectionate best wishes for whatever fine and wonderful things you may desire, Affa
On 29 May 1955 Sarfatti wrote to Wittgens asking how much Pelliccioli’s restoration cost. The letter ended with the warmest of regards.
I embrace you, my dear Fernanda!
3 June 1955
Pelliccioli assures me that he has written to you in person regarding the cost of restoring the Ranzoni (I think he is asking for Lit. 10,000) […] I have spent a month in virtual isolation because my health took too many knocks last year and in the spring, in addition to which I have been worn down by fifteen years of war. I am slowly “regaining height”, however, and Pellicioli and I shall certainly have a look at the small picture, which interests me with regard to its attribution. Give me a ring from Como when you get back from Paris and we shall organise a tour of the area with my young cousins. In the meantime, my heartfelt best wishes for your stay in Paris.
21 June 1955
May this fine Christ by Rouault acquaint you with my loyal, unflagging, affectionate and grateful thoughts. Do not overdo things if possible (but I have known you for a long time and I know that you will find my advice neither possible nor feasible). But then… better that way than the reverse. Your life so full of fine and useful things is a consolation for you and a model for us. I trust that it will always be thus! What purpose would be served by life, vitality, intelligence, youth, strength and so forth if we did not misuse them? A sense of measure, wisdom and so on – all fine things, but too sedentary. In any event, use and misuse it, but do not overdo it! Paris full of interesting exibitions, Picasso, Derain, Degas, Black African art, French works loaned by the United States and so forth. I had Lit. 10,000 sent to Pelliccioli. Thank you also for that and for the small picture in the style of Cremona, or possibly an autograph Cremona, or maybe simply a restful picture? Have you seen it?
Christmas 1955 – New Year 1956
Postcard, back: The Colosseum
Infinite best wishes. I hope that you are now perfectly well again and that you have started to work again, but remember Manzoni’s wise old maxim: “Adelante… con juicio” [Forward… with care]. Look after yourself and do not waste your precious strength. I never heard anything about the famous small picture that I sent to Pelliccioli some nine months ago under your auspices. I would love to hear something about it. [Continues overleaf] He saw it yesterday. What does he think of it? And has it been restored, or not? Infinite thanks and omce again I send you all my affection and best wishes.
Fernanda Wittgens (1903–57) was an art historian. Director of the Pinacoteca di Brera, Director General for Fine Arts and an anti-Fascist, she paid for her opposition to the regime with a spell in prison. She was hired by Brera as an “external worker”, or independent contractor, but she performed both technical and administrative tasks with the rank of inspector. She enjoyed a perfect entente with Modigliani, whom she held up as a model not just for her career but for her very lifestyle.
In the course of her thirty-year career at the Brera (1928–57), Wittgens gave the nation back both the Pinacoteca and Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper following the damage which both sites had suffered during the war, and she forged close ties with civil and intellectual society in Milan and on a national level.
Margherita Sarfatti (1880 – 1961), née Grassini, was born into a wealthy, cultivated and distinguished Jewish family in Venice in 1880. She benefited from a private education which focused on art and literature, an unusual privilege for a young girl at the time. She married a lawyer named Cesare Sarfatti, a Socialist, in 1898 and moved with him in 1901 to Milan, where she began to frequent the salon of Filippo Turati and Anna Kuliscioff and to write for the Socialist daily Avanti! and other periodicals including, from 1914 onwards, Il Popolo d’Italia which had recently been launched by Benito Mussolini.
Despite her success as a journalist, her extremely incisive role as a art critic, curator and collector and the fact that she was a founder member of the Novecento Italiano group in 1923 and an ambassador of Italian art throughout the world, she is best-known even today for her affair with Benito Mussolini, whom she had met while she was writing for Avanti!.
Sarfatti stayed with him throughout his transformation into Il Duce, playing a leading role in Italian political and cultural life while at the same time making a fundamental contribution to the regime, helping to launch and to shape it in political terms at least until the moment it acquired legitimacy. When the race laws were passed in 1938, she moved to France, then to Montevideo and finally to Buenos Aires. She returned to Italy in 1947, after the war was over and democratic rights had been reinstated. Her sister Nella Grassini Errera, who had stayed in Italy, was deported with her husband and died in Auschwitz.
Margherita Sarfatti, who died at the age of eighty-one in 1961, left her art collection to her daughter Fiammetta. When Fiammetta herself died in 1989, Luisa Laureati wrote this in her obituary, published in Rome daily La Repubblica: “I saw only pictures of the highest quality and grace by the greatest and most sensitive Italian painters of the 20th century: some of the finest works of De Pisis, Sironi and Tosi, a marvellous Severini, a number of luminous and very successful pictures by Carrà, a masterpiece by Savinio, a really sweet portrait by Boccioni depicting Fiammetta as a child and Wildt’s famous portrait of Sarfatti, unquestionably one of the artist’s most beautiful sculptures.That is what I remember of Fiammetta’s collection. The pictures were very simply framed, and hung with that seeming nonchalance which actually showed that they were valued both in their own right and for the feelings of those who had understood and loved them either as a name or as a financial investment.”