By Costanza Beltrami

Italian painter Mario Mafai died on 31 March 1965 in Rome. He was a central member of the scuola romana, a loose group of artists who painted lyrical and intimate subjects contrasting with the neoclassical monumentality of Novecento Italiano. Influenced by the style of Giorgio Morandi, Mafai focused on the tonal quality of his work, representing everyday objects with subtle color graduations which evoke a magical reality.

While artists of the Novecento Italiano group often reflected the rhetoric of Benito Mussolini in their choice of subject matter, Mafai’s Demolition of the Suburbs series subtly criticized the dictator’s urban transformation of Rome, which entailed the razing of several working-class districts. Mafai experienced the cruelty of Fascism personally, as his wife Antonietta Raphaël, also an artist, was the daughter of a Lithuanian rabbi. As Italy enforced discriminatory Racial Laws in 1938, the couple moved to Genoa, where they found the help of friends and collectors. Despite being turned into a second-class citizen by the anti-Semitic laws, Mafai was drafted into the reserve forces during the second world war. During the conflict he painted the Fantasies, violent war scenes inspired by Francisco de Goya’s famous engravings Disasters of War.

After the end of Mussolini’s dictatorship the importance of Mafai’s work was widely recognized. He starred in many exhibitions and won several artistic competitions. After his death, the IX Quadriennale di Roma celebrated his artistic career with an important retrospective which affirmed the artist’s importance on the European stage.

Sources: Emily Braun. “Mafai, Mario.” Grove Art Online. Oxford art Online. Oxford University Press, Flavia Matitti, “MAFAI, Mario,” Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, vol. 67 (2006),

Autoritratto (Self-portrait), 1928, oil on canvas. Milan: Museo del Novecento, Alberto Della Ragione Collection. Source: Museo del Novecento.

Fiori secchi (Dry flowers), 1932, oil on canvas, 61.5 x 50 cm. Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera, inv. no. 5080. Source: Pinacoteca di Brera.

Demolizioni (Demolitions), 1937, oil on canvas. Milan: Museo del Novecento, Alberto Della Ragione Collection. Source: Museo del Novecento.

Natura Morta con foglie, fiori e oggetti (Still Life with Leaves, Flowers and Objects), 1946, oil on canvas, 61 x 50 cm. Turin, Fondazione de Fornaris, inv. no. FD040. Source: Fondazione de Fornaris.

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