Seventy-eight years ago this month, sculptor Antonietta Raphaël Mafai fled Rome. The 1930s had been a harsh decade for her as the anti-Semitic media pushed for the creation of a “Pure Race”. She had seen her name printed in a list of “artists to ban”, because “degenerated” Jewish art had to be abolished and its creators excluded from the right to exhibit. It was June 1939 when Mussolini’s Racial Law 29 turned this propaganda into law. Not long afterwards, Jewish children would be denied the right to school registration, which forced Raphael’s three daughters (as non-baptized children of a mixed marriage) to recognize their Jewish status before the state. The family fled to Genoa. Mafai’s daughter Miriam recounts living as guests of intellectual Alberto della Ragione in a villa “presided over” by the art collector’s mother where the family stayed “in hiding” until the end of the war. It was there that Mafai would produce some of the most significant sculptures of her career.
Because of this story I was particularly happy when Florence’s Museo Novecento decided to make the in-progress restoration of Raphaël Mafai’s sculpture Mrs. Della Ragione accessible to the public. For several months this spring, conservator Merj Nesi worked in the museum’s outdoor loggia, where visitors could watch the process and ask questions. As founder and chair of Advancing Women Artists, the project’s sponsor, I feel that giving Raphael Mafai “extra” visibility is a way to shine a light on the difficulties she experienced, both as a Jewish artist and as a female sculptor, facing a medium that only a handful of historic women have tackled.
From the very beginning, even the conservator’s experience intrigued me. Nesi calls the artist “De Simon”. She will not, in fact, use her more recognized surnames. “I found the artist’s signature on the statue itself (1959). At that time, she was at the height of a very successful career. Perhaps that is why she decided to reclaim her maiden name. It’s the only one I want to ever use for her!”
“I feel very connected to De Simon,” Nesi explains. “She is the first woman artist whose works I have ever restored. Before I started maintenance on this piece, it took a lot of research to decide what she would have wanted. Diagnosing its needs was extremely complex as it seemed that time had shown no mercy, despite the relatively few decades that have passed since its creation. I scoured her personal diaries and discovered techniques she had used on other works. Thankfully, she was a prolific writer. She wanted her statues to have their greenish or rusty effects. Based on her journal entries, I realized she was aiming for the varied textures and colors that only corrosion can provide.”
Nesi’s enthusiastic discussion of corrosion made me wonder: How does a young girl go about deciding to be a “metals conservator”? What made her realize she’d like the restoration of bronze to become her career. “I am a plumber’s daughter,” she told me. “I spent my childhood on rooftops with my father, helping him fix drainpipes. What I really wanted to do was become a plumber just like him, and inherit the family business. But my family was worried and didn’t want that for me. They feared I wouldn’t be able to make a living because no one would listen to a woman plumber. So, I had to look for an alternative, and metal conservation was my answer.”