24 Luglio 2020

In an age when museology has to face unprecedented methodological and educational challenges, due to the pandemic that radically changed our way of relating to art, the Museo Novecento inaugurates a new exhibition program, with the aim of expanding and diversifying the use of its collections. Thus, the digital exhibition Portraits and Poses from the Alberto Della Ragione Collection was designed, in collaboration with the Students Of The M.A. In Museum Studies (Marist College – Istituto Lorenzo De’ Medici).

This special online project intends to offer an original reinterpretation of some recurrent topics in the collection of paintings and sculptures that belonged to Alberto Della Ragione and that was donated to the city of Florence in 1970. The project is articulated around a restricted nucleus of works, selected among the 241 masterpieces collected with great passion by the naval engineer since the 1930s and which he himself returned to the community, with a deep civic sense, in the aftermath of the terrible flood of 1966. Today as yesterday, art offers us the key to creatively react to difficulties.


The Alberto Della Ragione Collection, now partially exhibited at the Museo Novecento, is characterized by a great stylistic and thematic variety, which leads to multiple analyses and inexhaustible interpretations. Among the most representative subjects we can find portraits and posed figures. These iconographic themes, at the core of our exhibition project, allow us to better know the collector’s taste, but also to reflect on the different meanings conveyed by this traditional genre of European art, which has spanned the centuries while remaining ‘contemporary’.

The portrait can reveal a lot about one’s identity, questioning the image of the ‘self’ and that of the ‘other’. It can be interpreted not only as a representation of the portrayed person, but also as a representation of the artist’s identity and of the historical-cultural context in which he operated. It can also mirror patron or collector’s personality and involve observer’s special projections.

The Alberto Della Ragione Collection can be considered, in its wholeness, as a portrait of its owner and, at the same time, as the “portrait of a nation”, with its culture, its tradition, its history. The collection, inextricably linked to the artistic and political events that contributed to defining the cultural identity of our country in the years between the two World Wars, offers in fact a special overview of Italian art of the first half of the 20th Century, constantly reminding us how important the link between individual and community is, as well as the one between artistic creation and society.

Within the exhibition, the analysis on the genre of portraiture is articulated along different conceptual axes, using both traditional categories and less conventional suggestions. The narration develops through seven thematic sections – Real people, Ideal faces, Poses, Hidden faces, Portraits of Intimacy, Portraits of “Genre”, “In Absentia” – bringing together 35 works by great masters of Italian art, including Renato Birolli, Massimo Campigli, Felice Casorati, Filippo De Pisis, Virgilio Guidi, Renato Guttuso, Carlo Levi, Mino Maccari, Mario Mafai, Giacomo Manzù, Arturo Martini, Francesco Menzio, Giuseppe Migneco, Giorgio Morandi, Antonietta Raphaël Mafai, Ottone Rosai, Mario Sironi, Scipione (Gino Bonichi). Some of these works, preserved in the storage, are visible again in digital format thanks to this project.


Real People

[...] The road ahead / is not a way, only two hands, a face, / those hands, that face, the gesture of one / life that is nothing but itself […].

Eugenio Montale

Over the centuries, portraiture has been associated with the representation of real people, often eternalized in works aimed at highlighting their physical, social, economic or ethical qualities. Portraits can record more than just physical appearance by highlighting the power, wealth and importance of the sitter, showed in a favourable light.

During the 20th Century, many artists portrayed people they used to know or they were linked to, such as their own family, friends and lovers. This section will introduce portraits of identified people, distinguished by their own name.


This is the case, for example, of the Study for Cardinal Decano (1929) by Scipione, which is part of a series on the Cardinal Vannutelli dating from 1929 to 1930. This important figure was ‘dean’ par excellence, given the venerable age and the positions he held. His image was a primary source of inspiration for Scipione, whose painting is focusing on cardinal’s face, with a great verisimilitude. As a co-founder of the so-called Scuola Romana or Scuola di via Cavour, along with Mario Mafai and Antonietta Raphaël Mafai, he countered classical formalism with an expressionist and tonal view of reality.

Antonietta Raphaël Mafai was a wonderful painter, but better shown here as a great sculptress. In this section, we can see her Portrait of Emilio Jesi (1940) and Portrait of Mrs. Della Ragione (c. 1940-1945), two artworks that mirror her frequentations of those years, when she had to move to Genoa with her daughters, after the emanation of the racial laws, knowing that she could count on the generous support of both Emilio Jesi and Alberto Della Ragione.

«Our mother – declared Riccardo, Alberto Della Ragione’s brother – did not want to be portrayed; there was no way to make her pose. Antonietta was forced to make many sketches of her face almost in secret, surprising her in moments of rest».

The collector’s mother was also portrayed by Renato Birolli (Portrait of Alberto Della Ragione’s mother, 1954), one of the main representatives of Corrente, the artistic movement that was linked to the magazine of the same name published in the late 1930s. Alberto Della Ragione had a close relationship with the artist, who completed this portrait after the death of Mrs. Della Ragione, which occurred in September 1943.

Significantly, both in this painting and in Raphaël Mafai’s sculpture, we can glimpse what Giulia Mafai, Antonietta’s daughter, remembered about this elderly figure, seated in an armchair, whose face evoked that of a “centennial turtle”.

A kind of verisimilitude is also characteristic of Pompeo Borra’s Portrait of Maruzza (1935). In this painting, one of the artist’s favourite sitters is portrayed. We can notice the volumetric values and harmony which were typical the modern tradition of Magic realism and Novecento Italiano.

Ideal Faces

Behind thy thoughts and feelings, my brother, there is a mighty lord, an unknown sage—it is called Self; it dwelleth in thy body, it is thy body.

Friedrich Nietzsche

The notion of idealization is the opposite of the nature of an object. The psychologist Sigmund Freud defined the concept in his essay On Narcissism as process where a subject aggrandize and exalts an object, it is an unrealistic exaggeration of the positive qualities. The action of attributing certain qualities implies a subjective representation of value judgments, personal experiences and a particular vision of the world.

When speaking of works of art, the worldview of an artist can be reflected in the idealized representation of a theme-object. These works not only give us a glimpse of the artists’ personal dimension, but also broaden it by revealing the social, political and economic aspects of a specific historical moment. For example, in a Greek sculpture, we are not really seeing an objective and naturalistic representation, but rather an idealized representation of a body that was made through the selection of individual bodily attributes that formed a whole to represent beauty. By examining sculpture, we are not only in front of the artist’s vision, but we are also approaching the concepts of beauty, proportion and perfection of Greek society at the time of its execution.


What is the ideal face for an Italian artist from the beginning of the 20th century? If an idealized portrait represents not only the artists’ vision but also presents social and aesthetic values of a certain period, what would be the characteristics that define an object as ideal? 

Ideal Faces is a selection of portraits that do not represent specific people, but rather reflect the aesthetic and social values of a particular period of history, a stage characterized by the plastic and theoretical experimentation and variety of artistic practices. A great example is the painting Head of a woman(1932) by Massimo Campigli, which not only shows the imaginative and inventive capacity of the artist, it also reveals the strong influence that the returning gaze to ancient societies such as the Etruscan had when making geometric and archaic figures in his work.

Portrait of a Man(1938) by Carlo Levi made palpable the new forms of representation of a man by creating a figure with loose and expressive brush strokes, which remind us to the German Expressionism and the possible influence that Oskar Kokoschka had on him also demonstrates the particular way in which it represents the idea of a man, who moves away from any classical concept of beauty and comes closer to a visceral representation that seeks beauty in the distorted figurative expressiveness.

The new concepts of representation of archetypes in the interwar period seem to become increasingly distorted as we enter the concept of idealization as a form of representation that exalts certain qualities that are unique in every single artwork: fluid brush strokes, huge and misshapen eyes, rigid postures, expressionless faces and the continuous discovery of a new language, as well as seen in the large brushstrokes with an intense use of warm colours such as deep red and brown which can be traced in the Head of a Young Girl(1930) by Mario Mafai.

Another example of the heterogeneity of styles is Head of Woman (c. 1933) by Francesco Menzio, which also shares lively and strong brushstrokes that reveals the artists interest on French Post-Impressionism; or the approach by Giacomo Manzù in Head of a Young Man(1932-1933) where a new language of portraits can be found in the idealized neo-Etruscan model of representation.


[…] to understand, beyond literature, the meaning of a gesture, a face and the word, as simple, poetic freedom.

Carlo Levi

What can be found in an artwork that shows figures immortalized in a suspended gesture? What is the relationship between the artist and the portrayed sitter, who is caught in a silent, motionless pose? These are some of the questions that we can ask ourselves when we look at such artworks. Sometimes, they can evoke impossible dialogues; in some other cases, they can refer to quick meetings or, on the contrary, to long sessions in the studio.

Some of the most intriguing works in the Alberto Della Ragione collection are centred on figures which have been caught in a suspended pose and often show us that we are being introduced to an intimate and familiar setting.


The selected artworks of this section dedicated to posed figures illustrate the fascination that many artists had for telling a story through gestures. They can convey specific and intimate emotions, often through the representation of a solitary female figure. So, they can often give an insight on the female condition in the interwar period, even in the everyday life. When looking at those works, we can be hit by a strange sense of peace in a figure that’s frozen in time. The art allows room for questioning the sitter and what they were thinking during the creation of the depiction.

The poses can be a representation of identity and inform us about the figure and the artist, but also about the context of production. Furthermore, they manage to tell a rich and personal story in such a casual demeanour. The apparent ease of those works allows the viewers to connect with their ordinary acts of daily life, establishing a direct and empathic dialogue with the portrayed subject. This is the case, for example, of a woman resting in a chair, like in Felice Casorati’s Study for a Portrait (1919) or Virgilio Guidi’s Solitary Woman (1938). In those two painting a young woman is caught in a domestic interior, enveloped in a melancholic and silent atmosphere, and depicted with concise and large brushstrokes.

This is even more true for Mario Sironi’s Thoughtful Woman (1928), where a few violent brushstrokes trace the silhouette of a motionless, silent young woman.

Sironi’s expressionist style is different from the one of Carlo Levi’s Young Woman (1934), whose simple gesture of hands in hair is accentuated by the acid green line that runs along the woman’s forehead. The wavy brushstrokes enclose the figure: whites, browns, greys and blues create a whirlwind of movement. They overwhelm us and capture our attention, making us to focus on the delicate fixity of the gaze.

There is a feeling of modern anti-monumentality in Levi’s painting, whose subject is very similar to the one of Lucio Fontana’s Paulette (1938). In this artwork, the author achieved an admirable solution of the unity of painting and sculpture, that he often tried to attain in his ceramics. In this case, the sitter, with her pose of a vibrant black and white, seems to be transfigured in a poetic and dreamlike dimension.

Hidden Faces

Their one aim is to persuade you yo try to know my face – but if you do see it, as I have often told you, you will not see it.


What is there behind a face that hides from view? Which kind of thoughts agitate the sitter? And which ones agitate the artist who relates to a person (a character?) he cannot establish a visual dialogue with? What role can the observer of the artwork play in this interrupted, mysterious conversation?

The five paintings of this section are filled with emotion and invite you to imagine the thoughts that may lie behind these hidden faces. These hidden faces all belong to female poses, some of which may be considered provocative, but more importantly will spark fascination, comparison and dialogue. The mystery of the hidden face is one that cannot be answered simply but is simply fascinating.


Felice Casorati’s painting titled Nude (Study for ‘Meriggio’) (1922), for example, is the perfect balance of subtle and provocative; inviting curiosities to imagine what the viewer cannot see, and why the artist chose for the viewer to be unable to see the muse’s facial expressions. What we can see, here, is only the careful rendering of volumes, that reveals, in its ideal image of the human body, an original reference to ancient masters such as Giotto and Piero della Francesca.

This female nude body is very different from the one that Giuseppe Migneco painted in his Girl from the back (1941). In this artwork, a large and violent brushstroke reveals the influence of Van Gogh’s use of colour, as well as a sense of anxiety and uncertainty in portraying the sitter, that seems to convey a sense of kindness and hostility, at the same time.

The rediscovery of Van Gogh and Cézanne was also important for Renato Birolli, whose Woman with a flower in the hair (1942) suggests the artist’s interest in the use of vivid colours.

Intense colours also characterizes Virgilio Guidi’s Woman in Blue (c. 1945). The figure is shown with a blank slate of where facial features may have once been but will never been seen. The artist’s style evolved during the Forties, tending towards a more evident abstractionism, as we can see from a comparison between this painting and the previous Head of a Woman (Fragment) (c. 1934), whose idealising style was still naturalistic. Here, Guidi had tried to achieve a sense of mystery through a three quarter portrait, that hides the face of the young sitter from the view.

Portraits of Intimacy

The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward


Intimacy can be defined as mental, emotional, or physical closeness. This section provides insight into the intimate and emotional connection between sitter and artist, the intensity of the encounter, and the artists’ interpretation of the subject through this encounter.

The portrayal of people who are part of the artist’s sphere of affections is not uncommon among modern and contemporary artists. Paintings and sculptures often reveal close relationships. The artistic language provides a unique view to a single dimension, that may be brought to light in entire compositions or small details.


The five works that comprise this section date to the interwar period, when many artists showed interest in the realm of the private and intimate.

During these 20 years, artists lived and created through one or both World Wars and had the opportunity to see the evolution of the avant-garde movements, such as Expressionism and Futurism, but also of the so-called ‘return to order’. Some of those artists used a wide-ranging palette of colours creating powerful portraits and sometimes using non-naturalistic, even garish, colours for skin tones. These portraits show the inner essence of the subject from the artist’s point of view.

We currently live in an age where portraits are everywhere in the form of quick pictures and selfies. This world of screens, social media, and popular opinion can be full of fantasy and frustration. The artworks displayed here serve as a reminder of how these painted portraits can put the viewer, the artist, or the subject in touch with their inner, hidden self.

In My Sister (c. 1921-1922), for example, the Florentine painter Ottone Rosai introduces us, with a few dry brushstrokes, in a bare domestic interior, where a young woman is portrayed in three quarter, silently sitting and giving us the impression of a kind, respectful representation.

Renato Birolli, too, shows us the relationship that linked him to his mother, who strongly supported his son. In this Portrait of the mother (1940) made of ivory, yellow and green – that reveals the influence of Vincent Van Gogh’s style – Birolli leads us in his most private world, with an Expressionist and anti-rhetorical language.

Another woman, whose identity is not revealed, is at the centre of one of the rare Arturo Martini’s paintings, Awakening (c. 1939-1940). Here, the great sculptor portrayed a naked woman fixing her in a daily gesture. The fast and constructive brushstrokes give us the impression of looking at a private, almost prohibited scene.

A different idea of intimacy is contained in Mario Mafai’s and Mario Sironi’s paintings.

In his Self-portrait (1928), Mario Mafai aims to express some introspective qualities, along with a vague sense of powerlessness and hope, with lyrical hints. The head resting on the hand, accentuates the oblique line of the face while the squeezed eye appears as if it were seen through distortion a lens. This echoes Parmigianino and Bosch, with suggestions from Chagall and Kokoschka and a reminiscence of El Greco’s colour mysticism.

The painter himself is at the core of Mario Sironi’s Painter at the easel(1928-1931), too. This painting is characterised by a rough pictorial material, employed by Sironi for showing us an artist in the intimate space of his studio, with his tools: could this be the painter himself? Or is it an effigy that, while being observed, also observes us and calls us into question?

Portraits of ‘genre’

You will learn at your own expense that in the long journey of life you will encounter many masks and few faces.

Luigi Pirandello

The portraits featured in this section do not differ from others in their subjects. We see students, women, lunatics, and a leader. Each of them is an individual. Yet all of them represent the many categories and stereotypes which can apply to the subjects as well. There are many figures to be considered, but there are no names or personal identifiers to be found. One must rely on the forms and portrayals the artists have created to relate to the people in this collection.


Even though these works have all been completed by Italian artists between the years of 1924 – 1942, which provides a cohesive time period and physical space in which the portraits were made, different mediums, emotions, and techniques are all involved in the creation of each individual piece.

Finally, we can say that not only this section’s artworks, but all the paintings and sculptures that are part of this exhibition are, above all else, a study of relationships and representations. The relationships of the artists and the cultures they lived in, to the subjects and cultures they chose to represent; but also the relationships of the title of an art piece and the individual humans featured within; as well as the relationships between the viewer and the works observed.

Both in The schoolgirls(c. 1927-1931) and The Chinese Woman(c. 1931-1933) by Arturo Martini – one of the masters of modern Italian sculpture, who shows the influence of Etruscan art in his terracotta figures – we can see, for example, unknown female figures. They are represented with social and cultural categories, that can convey any number of stereotypes.

Other women are at the centre of Scantly Dressed Women (c. 1940) by Renato Guttuso, who described the human condition by investigating social and political themes. In this painting, he allows the viewer to grasp these women’s – probably three prostitutes – emotions and thoughts. This is due to dramatic realism combined with an expressionist style, direct in its approach.

The search for an expressionist and strongly communicative style was also defended by Mino Maccari. The artist, who had adhered to the Fascist movement at a very early stage, fought for free artistic expression during all his life. As we can see in his Hierarch (1942), he called Fascism’s aesthetic principles into question. We can see a decomposing and colourful figure. It is an unconventional representation of a leader, usually shown as a solid and monolithic image by official Fascist propaganda.

The vivid colours are similar to the ones used by Italo Valenti in The Lunatics of the Isle (1941), where he reflected on madness. His dreamlike style is accompanied by an intense composition and contrasting colours. Looking at this painting, we can ask ourselves questions such as: who are the people that we see? Are they a group of friends? A group of painters? Who are the lunatics?





All these objects . . . how can I explain? They inconvenienced me, I would have liked them to exist less strongly, more dryly, in a more abstract way, with more reserve. 

Jean-Paul Sartre

When one removes oneself from one’s life, what remains? A menagerie of bottles? A top hat and mask? Or perhaps the tools of the trade – soiled brushes, canvases that have been tirelessly worked and rework and set aside for another day? An unfinished decanter, a handful of wildflowers, a well-read newspaper? Or, perhaps, an empty street that had been traversed time and time again?

The aptly named still life genre of painting captures the soul of the ‘self’ whose absent presence haunts one’s possessions.


It is itself a form of portraiture which captures the immaterial aspects of the ‘self’ through tangible objects. How much can be learned about the ‘self’ through both the well-loved and neglected material possessions depicted in a still life?

As you experience ‘In absentia’ search for these signs of life, look for the clues into the life of the ‘self’ depicted in the paintings. Immerse yourself into the painting and feel the residual energies that haunt this collection of bottles, or top hat, or brush, or decanter, or empty street.

Consider your own life ‘In absentia’. What remains? What can you learn about yourself when you remove yourself from the image? What does your own scatter of possessions – or winding landscape – say about your own life?

The tranquillity of a still life painting – the stillness – can be a powerful tool to evoke the soul of the subject – the life – the ‘self’.

This is the case, for example, with Giorgio Morandi, who painted simple everyday objects during all his life. The Still life (1923-1924) that is included in this section is made of delicate light and earthy colours, evoking the suspended tone of a metaphysical scene which reveals the author’s deep inspiration.

In Mask and top hat (1940), which was painted in Genoa in the years of the Fascist persecutions, Mario Mafai, too, summarizes a repertoire of autobiographical and symbolic objects. These objects are caught in a timeless dimension, wrapped in a metaphysical aura, revealing a kind of nostalgia for the artist’s old life in Rome. The composition is dominated by a top hat, that Mafai used to wear both on formal occasions and in everyday moments, whilst the other objects are a tribute to the work and origins of his wife, Antonietta Raphaël.

Filippo De Pisis’ Canvases and paint brushes(1942) can be interpreted as an intimate description of the artist’s own life, work and interests. A smoking pipe, brushes in a jar, books placed side by side, a glass bottle, a painter’s palette, the back of a canvas are depicted on a table with an uncertain perspective and in a fast and poetic style. The objects seem to touch each other, in a game of consequential relationships, which recount the daily work in the studio.

Renato Guttuso’s Still Life with a Newspaper(1943) captures a collection of objects that, on their own, may tell a different story than they do when arranged together. In this case, they can tell us something more about Guttuso’s life in Genoa; they talk about war and persecution, and about his fight against Fascism.

Ottone Rosai’s landscape Via San Leonardo di giorno(1948) perhaps functions the same way as a still life in regard to portraiture, by evoking an absent presence. The ‘self’ is, once again, removed from the image, but what is left – the landscape, the perspective, the painting – can be just as provocative.



An exhibition promoted by
Comune di Firenze

In collaboration with
M.A. in Museum Studies, Marist College – Istituto Lorenzo de’ Medici

Artistic direction and Scientific coordination
Sergio Risaliti

Curated by
Eva Francioli

With the collaboration of the students of the M.A. in Museum Studies
Emma Buckingham, Mario Cesareo, Kylie Flynn, Madeline Krema, Isabella Pircio, Carlos Salazar Wagner, Nora V. Zamora


Fototeca dei Musei Civici Fiorentini

Thanks to
Dario Nardella, Mayor of Florence
Tommaso Sacchi, Councilor of Culture
Matteo Spanò, President MUS.E

Andrea Batistini, Andrea Bianchi, Serena Botti, Mariella Carlotti, Monica Consoli, Gabriella Farsi, Roberto Gabucci, Elisa Gradi, Carla Guarducci, Matteo Innocenti, Antonella Nicola, Cecilia Pappaianni, Silvia Penna, Paolo Sani, Claire Stypulkowski, Lorenzo Valloriani