Catching Up with Micky Wolfson on the Occasion of the Rebirth of Rome

When Wolfsonian founder Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. purchased the studies for the artist Ferruccio Ferrazzi’s mosaic Il Mito di Roma [The Myth of Rome], on view in the exhibition The Birth of Rome, he was motivated in part by similarities he perceived between his hometown of Miami Beach and the interplay of ancient and modern Rome expressed in the studies.

Ferrazzi’s mosaic of the founding myth of Rome, designed in 1940 for a new building in the Piazza Augusto Imperatore, is both a celebration of the emergence of a modern Rome and an homage to the city’s ancient splendor. Where, in these scenes that personified the Tiber River as a young man holding Romulus and Remus, with the she-wolf said to have nurtured them seated at his feet, did Wolfson detect even an inkling of Miami Beach? And why did Wolfson seek to collect these and other works on view in the three exhibitions that comprise Rebirth of Rome—art and design created in the interwar years, under Fascism, when, as he recalls, art of this period was viewed largely as “suspicious, and not valued”?
 

It was the late 1980s and Wolfson believed Miami Beach, and Miami as a whole, was on the cusp of something big, a “rising up of a new concept.” Where there had been a wilderness of sorts, there would emerge a significant city. He looked at Ferrazzi’s representation of the Tiber and thought of the bay and the Everglades. He saw the she-wolf and thought of alligators. Rome was the eternal city. Miami was the magical city. The mural was in part an expression of the emergence of a new Rome. Miami, he felt, was about to emerge. As for the works themselves, they were elements of history, and of a time period that fascinated him. “I’m basically a historian. I saw the historic value in the work,” he says. “One has to be tolerant of human behavior—it’s a requirement if you are endeavoring to study it.”

Wolfson bought the enormous studies from Ferrazzi’s daughter, Metella Ninetta, a painting conservator in Rome, with the condition that they be restored. He is still amused today when he recalls her resourcefulness in renting out a church to have a space large enough for the restoration. The accumulation of these and other materials in Rebirth of Rome was in many ways an adventure. The painting 1919 by Giacomo Gabbiani, on view in The Birth of Rome, was purchased from the artist’s wife and daughter, “hermits living in a farmhouse outside of Milan,” Wolfson says. “It was so improbable, the purchase of these pieces and some of the other items you see in the exhibitions. I was actively buying interwar materials when they were of no interest to people in Italy. And very little about these works was known in America because of the political situation when they were created.”

After the Ferrazzi purchase, he phoned Mark Hampton, the architect responsible for transforming the former Washington Storage Company into Wolfson’s dream of a “world-class museum.” Wolfson relayed the measurements of the cartoon for the central panel to Hampton—a touch over twenty feet high and about ten and a half feet wide—so that the dimensions of the future museum’s sixth floor gallery could be adjusted to display the piece.

While the gallery size was altered to accommodate the piece, the cartoon, as it turned out, has not been displayed until now. Sharing the Ferrazzi works with the public, such a seemingly straightforward endeavor, took much longer to realize than aspects of Wolfson’s vision considered purely outlandish by many—namely, that Miami had a promising future, and that it was an appropriate setting for the museum he was creating, “an international cultural forum that would tell story of our history through the arts.”

Looking back from today’s vantage point of a booming Miami, and of an internationally renowned museum, research center, and library, it may seem there were inklings of what was to come. Not really, says Wolfson. He had faith in Miami’s future, but it was not widely shared. “Miami was so belittled in the national psyche. In a way, my determination to build this museum was out of pure defense. I was very ambitious, and I felt I had a chance to create a cultural institution that would contribute to the city,” he says. “What the Wolfsonian is, really, is an attempt to reanimate the past, so that people can know better what came before. And as we inquire into a past that we may not be familiar with, and come to understand it, that helps us to move forward.”

----->Read the Wall Street Journal’s take on the Rebirth of Rome, “Where Fascism Succeeded: Italian design between the world wars looks surprisingly good today,” published January 15, 2014.

Captions (click to enlarge):

Top:

Wolfsonian founder Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. with the museum’s curator Silvia Barisione and director Cathy Leff
Photo: World Red Eye

Bottom:

Cartoon, Tevere [Tiber], from Il Mito di Roma [The Myth of Rome], 1940
Ferruccio Ferrazzi (1891–1978)
Tempera on paper
248 ¼ x 127 ½ in (630.6 x 323.9 cm)
The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, XX1989.200.2

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Catching Up with Micky Wolfson on the Occasion of the Rebirth of Rome