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Museo Salvatore Ferragamo in Florence pays tribute to Marilyn Monroe
Rare self portrait of a twelve year old Marilyn Monroe (Norma Jean Baker) taken in a photo booth. Photo: The Gene London Collection.

FLORENCE.- “The size of your feet, too, tells me about your character. I have divided the women who have come to me into three categories: the Cinderella, the Venus and the Aristocrat. [...] Venus is usually of great beauty, glamour, and sophistication, yet under her glittering exterior she is often essentially a home body loving the simple things of life. Because these two characteristics are mutually contradictory the Venus is often misunderstood. People accuse her of too much luxury-loving and frivolity.”

This is how Salvatore Ferragamo described the women who wore a size 6 in his autobiography, but he could very well have been describing Marilyn Monroe, the most famous actress of all time, the most photographed woman in the world, a pop icon with a complex, much talked about personality, the loyal customer who made his 4-inch heel pumps famous, but whom he never met, because she bought her shoes at the Park Avenue store in New York City or she had others buy them for her in Italy.

Museo Salvatore Ferragamo in Florence pays tribute to this timeless myth with an important exhibition fifty years after her death (5 August 1962). Under the curation of Stefania Ricci and Sergio Risaliti, the exhibition and catalogue (Skira) are the fruit of meticulous preparation and research, involving the study of documents, photographs, films, writings and the actress’s life, in order to understand the countless facets of this woman and star. Like other Hollywood divas (Audrey Hepburn and Greta Garbo), Marilyn adored wearing Salvatore Ferragamo shoes – she owned dozens of pairs, each with a simple design and not one without a stiletto heel. The exhibition includes 30 pairs of shoes and over 50 outfits from the actress’ wardrobe, worn on the set of her most important movies, in her personal life and in public, clothing and accessories that over time, as with anything she touched, have become cult objects sought after by collectors around the world and sold at auctions for astronomical prices.

In addition to her clothing, significant film clips and original documents are shown to make visitors privy to the other Marilyn, not the sexy blond bombshell we saw on the surface, but a modern woman, “bursting with energy,” as Cristina Comencini writes in the catalogue, “talent, confidence alongside brusque moments of desperation, fragility, loss of self-esteem and fears … a perfect being aware of herself, her power, and yet, at the same time, a little girl who was wronged so many years ago,” a woman, the exhibition curators add, who nevertheless showed determination and savvy in creating and managing her success.

The exhibition also juxtaposes different artistic domains: photography - because Marilyn was, without a doubt, the most photographed woman of the twentieth century - and film - because she was an extraordinary actress, capable of interpreting a wide array of roles and a varied range of characters, with the ability to bring significant innovation to the film industry. Specific attention is devoted to twentieth century art (Warhol, Klein, Rotella and Canevari) and classical art (Giambologna, Foggini, Dandini, Susini, Boucher, Canova and Greuze), on which Monroe’s pop image relies for the figurative archetypes necessary to eternalise her effigy. Historic film clips, international magazine covers and the actress’ original writings will be displayed next to these masterpieces.

This constant comparison of her daily life with the myth that seemed to encapsulate each of Marilyn’s gestures, poses and expressions will lie at the heart of the exhibition. Observed relentlessly, at all times in her life, Monroe often drew on Norma Jean Baker and vice versa. She was a complex alchemy of real and fictitious elements, a combination of drama and comedy, an explosive mix of naïveté and provocation, overflowing sensuality and celestial beauty.

A vast collection of photographs of Marilyn in her day-to-day life, captured by renowned photographers - or photographers made famous by their portraits of her - trace the life path of a movie star who, with her sensuality, illuminated the space around her, giving us a glimpse of the fears and anxieties that plagued her from childhood on. Newspaper articles are compared with the force of the archetype and the survival of her myth: her body, her beauty, her sensuality and her tragic end, a contemporary Venus and sex symbol, the secret Marilyn and the pop icon.

Carefully considered, Marilyn’s face and body – believed to be the “fantasy of every American man” – come ever closer to the cross between classical and contemporary art. Perhaps her greatness and the drama of her life lie in this dual nature of a spiritual feminine myth and modern pop art icon. Monroe, both on the set and in real life, incarnated something distant and primordial, bringing this mix of carnal sensuality and innocent beauty to everyday life through all forms of media. Advertising and television, the real innovation of those years, exaggerated popular and spiritual personalities, transforming them into consumer goods and images of desire. Both victim and architect of continuous personality splits, little Marilyn provided one of the last images with an aura, but trapped inside the mechanisms of mass communications. Pier Paolo Pasolini saw this and described it well in an extraordinary farewell poem dedicated to her, along with the images to accompany it in his film “La rabbia” (1963).

Exploring her legend and her life, the exhibition curators have sought to interpret the suggestive genesis of certain celebrated portraits of her by photography’s greats (Cecil Beaton, Bert Stern, George Barris, Milton Greene and André de Dienes), which capture Marilyn in “Classical” poses or even transfigure her sensuality in images of pure innocence. They have juxtaposed these portraits with celebrated masterpieces, showing poses and expressions that reflect our memory of the ancient past: from the balanced pathos of Alexander in “Alessandro morente” (here in a previously unseen marble sculpture conserved in Florence at Villa Corsini in Castello), which Cecil Beaton reinterprets through a drawing by French painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze, immortalising the spiritual intensity of Marilyn’s face; to the digital reproduction of Botticelli’s Venus, a symbol of the Renaissance that would appear to have inspired one of the shots taken by George Barris at the sea, as many details suggest it was studied and planned to this effect. Her body shown in certain poses, her head held a certain way, her expression and other features evoke myths and well-known depictions of feminine charm of the Ancient world, the Renaissance and the eighteenth century (“Venus Anadyomene”, “Leda and the Swan” or “Dying Nymph” in chalk by Antonio Canova, an extremely generous loan from Museo e Gipsoteca of Possagno). Furthermore, Marilyn’s tragic end only encourages the mythical, archetypical status of her image and her life, as it evokes that of other famous women who have died for love or in a struggle with power: from Cleopatra and Dido to Madame Bovary, the title character in her favourite novel, Violet or even Tosca, well-known characters in America, where opera is a celebrated art form and where, in particular, the Italian operas by Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini are appreciated.

In the rooms of Palazzo Spini Feroni, the prestigious location of Museo Ferragamo, the actress is seen as a goddess of the day and night, in a fusion of contrasting elements immortalised by Andy Warhol in Four Marilyns in black, an extraordinary work of art on loan from The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. A large room is dedicated to the costumes she wore in her most famous scenes in celebrated films like Niagara, Some Like It Hot, The Asphalt Jungle, The Seven-Year Itch, or The Misfits.

The catalogue includes images of all the clothing and documents in the exhibition, the Ferragamo shoes, a vast group of photographs shown and the extraordinary works of art from prestigious collections, such as the Harward Museum, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Museo e Gipsoteca Antonio Canova and the Warhol Foundation, as well as other private collections in Italy and abroad. In addition, it includes essays devoted to the many facets of Marilyn’s personality and the main sections of the exhibition, exploring the theme of Marilyn and women (Cristina Comencini), her life and major public and private events (Lois Banner), tenets of classical and modern beauty (Cristina Acidini), tragic heroines from Dido and Cleopatra to Callas and Marilyn (Mina Gregori, Luca Scarlini and Sergio Risaliti), the great actress (Claudio Masenza), the star’s tragic end and the myth of Astraea according to Pier Paolo Pasolini (Alessandro Bernardi) and the pop icon (Vincenzo Trione). A text by Stefania Ricci and Sergio Risaliti, curators of the exhibition, completes the catalogue.

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