“The Only Authentic Italian Sculptor” According to Cesare Brandi

Cecilia Canziani, Io dico io – I say I curator, talks about the work of Antonietta Raphaël Mafai

By La Galleria Nazionale

Le tre sorelleLa Galleria Nazionale


The life of Antonietta Raphaël seems to provide a map of the history of Twentieth century Europe. Born in Lithuania, on the death of her father, Rabbi Simon, she moved with her mother to London, where she graduated in music.

In 1924, she found herself alone in Paris, the following year she reached Rome, where she attended the Academy of Fine Arts and met Mario Mafai with whom she began a partnership of art and life.

Co-founder of the School of Via Cavour, together with Mafai and Scipione she experimented with the expressionist style of painting.

Her family took on a central role in her life and in her work, with the birth of Giulia, Simona and Miriam.


In 1930, with her three daughters and Mafai she moved back to Paris, where she began studying sculpture. She remained in France for four years, except for a short stay in London where she met Jacob Epstein.

In 1933 in Rome she had a large garden at her disposal. She created Miriam che dorme (sleeping Miriam), which began her gallery of girls, adolescents and women depicted in everyday actions, even when they lend their faces to deities or mythological figures for whom her daughters are often used as models: a matrilineal genealogy.

In 1939 she moved to Genoa to escape racial persecution, returned to Rome in ‘43, shortly before the Nazi occupation, then Genoa again, and was living permanently in Rome in 1950. It is difficult to resist the urge to think of the grandiose female figure of the Fuga da Sodoma (Escape from Sodom), conceived in the mid-thirties, destroyed, recreated several times and finally rebuilt in plaster in ’68 as not being a kind of self-portrait.


After the war, participating in the Venice art festivals of 1948 and 1950 and the anthology at the Lo Zodiaco gallery followed by an intense exhibition, led to a constant re-evaluation of her work which included not only sculpture, but her role and contribution to painting from the 1930s, to which she returned following Mafai's death.

International influences can be gleaned from her work: Maillol, alongside Martini, the classic, but also yearning for an archaic language, primitivism discovered through the avant-gardes, the fullness of taut surfaces that contrasts with the voids, the figure that is lost in large abstract masses.

She mainly works with plaster and concrete, poor materials – the bronze castings were all made during a more mature age.


Cesare Brandi defines her as “the only authentic Italian sculptor”. She says “the word sculpture alone fills me with an almost religious fear”.

Le tre sorelle (the three sisters) is a theme she often returns to. The concrete version, now in the Galleria Nazionale in Rome, was exhibited with the title of Composition at the Sindacale of 1937.

The group consists of the portrait of her three daughters: Miriam, the oldest, reads. Simona and Giulia listen. They appear as a single body, a generative nucleus, a gemmation.


Daniela Ferraria says that to a critic who asked her about her practice she replied: “I work, I have always worked on one subject: the mother with her child, that is, genesis and motherhood. By motherhood I mean the beginning of the world, the beginning of things, of all things. I love human figures very much because they can convey the idea of movement more than anything else”.

It is hard to recognise Antonietta Raphaël as anything other than a living and crucial figure for today's sculptors.

Discover more about Antonietta Raphaël Mafai

Credits: Story

Voice message by Cecilia Canziani, Io dico io – I say I curator.

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