Italian lifestyle and fashion: Brunetta Mateldi Moretti, a forgotten story

May 19, 2018 1499

With Summer vacation upon us and more time to relax, hopefully on a warm beach or on green grass or simply a comfortable couch, people often look for stress-free, interesting readings to keep them entertained during their downtime.

This year, one of the readings for the audience interested in Italian fashion and history, should be the new book about Brunetta Mateldi by Paola Biribanti, published by Carocci titled L’ironia é di moda. Brunetta Mateldi Moretti, artista eclettica dell’eleganza. 

The famous remark by Coco Chanel that “Fashion changes, style endures” can be fittingly applied to the vibrant art of Brunetta Mateldi Moretti and its timeless, classy style.

Defining her as an “illustrator for fashion magazines” would be extremely reductive because she is so much more than that. Brunetta was a fashion reporter, a designer and painter, but more than anything a curious observer of ‘the others’. She was an artist with a piece of paper and a pencil used to express her fine but sharp sense of humor. For example, one of her first drawings represented a group of chickens wearing purses and hats: the mirroring image of the Piedmontese ladies on an afternoon stroll. She used to say, about her own work, that it was a way “to take possession of other people’s life, to drink the eyes, the noses, the mouth, the arms, the feet and everything else of beautiful, ugly, good or bad people” («per sviscerare, impadronirsi di altre vite, per bersi gli occhi, i nasi, le bocche, le braccia, i piedi e tutto il resto delle persone belle, brutte, buone o cattive»). (Paolino, 1989).

This book by Paola Biribanti, is the result of devoted and accurate research, pays therefore the proper tribute to whom Gianfranco Franchi calls “the quintessence of Italian fashion”, an important figure of Italian past society, that nowadays is – sadly- almost completely forgotten. Brunetta can be considered one of the key reads to comprehend Italian society for over fifty years (from the 1920s until the social changes of the 1970s), with her ability to picture and analyze trends and obsessions of the time.

Born in 1904 and died 1989 (though her closest friends were not sure about her exact date of birth), Bruna - known as Brunetta - Mateldi Moretti worked mostly for fashion magazines and advertising agencies.

After studying ballet and art between Bologna and Turin, she met the artist, actor and demimondaine personality of the time, Filiberto Mateldi, whom she goes on to marry in 1930. From the end of the roaring ‘20s, Brunetta works for different Italian magazines, starting with Gazzetta del Popolo e La Stampa in Turin.

After the couple moved to Milan, she became familiar with the fashion world and starts to illustrate Paul Poiret’s delicate and innovative models. In 1929 the young illustrator makes her debut for Lidel, a fashion magazine for the Italian feminine élite of the time. From that moment on, Brunetta starts to collaborate with many other important magazines, such as La Lettura (monthly insert of Il Corriere della Sera) in 1931 and Il Corriere dei Piccoli in 1939. In 1936 she illustrates advertisements for famous brands like Olivetti and Campari. Valentino Bompiani wants her to draw the figures for the book collection I libri d’acciaio. After her husband’s death in 1942 and the end of WWII, she continues to work for Il Corriere della Sera, also creating iconic advertisement posters and manifestos for important brands and for the Milanese departmental store La Rinascente.

Her drawings, colorful, dynamic and ironic, with attention to detail, revealed an eclectic style and a recognizable artistic trait. She used to say about herself, that reading many books, visiting museums and observing the surroundings, helped her to better understand fashion. She had what today we can call a “critical eye” for the reality she was immerged in.

Along with her professional collaborations, Brunetta was a very passionate painter, and she exhibited her works in a few personal art shows: in Milan in 1956, and again in 1969, later in Rome in 1975, again in Milan in 1977, 1980 for Einaudi, and 1981. In 1957, the only Italian illustrator of that time, she was asked to draw for New York magazine Harper’s Bazaar, personally invited by director Diana Vreeland who earlier in 1932 asked her to work for Vogue (but she refused due to her husband’s illness).

For the popular Italian newspaper Espresso, Brunetta works with Camilla Caderna on the weekly column Il lato debole, where, according to Nodolini, her drawings mirrored “moods and trends, tics, witty remarks, costumes and neurosis of the time” (“mode e modi, tic, frizzi, usi e costumi, nevrosi del momento”) (Nodolini et al., 1981, p.29).

Her sharp, ironic and sometimes grotesque line, mixed with black and white or harmonious colors is the way she chooses to portray Italian women for over five decades: from the femme fatale of the 20s, to the laud parvenu of the 70s, throughout the young girls of the 60s with their short skirts and high hopes. Brunetta needed only one small detail to tell their story, along with the story of a country fixated one moment at a time, detailing a grimace, a raising eyebrow, a sad eye, a bent head and so on and so forth. She always presented to the most popular fashion shows: for her, fashion, which she defines “usefulness of useless things” (“l’utilità delle cose inutili”), is only another way to illustrate Italian society, as a whole.

Her friend and coworker Caderna told La Repubblica that if Brunetta was American, she would have been very famous and rich, because she was a genius, even though her line was probably too ironic for her times. Her strength was the ability to portrait female figures, ironizing them with elegance and glamour, while they were presenting themselves in front of her attentive eye. Petite in size and not very gracious, alone with her cats that she portrayed in many paintings, Brunetta was admired for the ease of her talent during the fashion shows, where she drew the mannequins, the models and the audience with the attention to detail and the irony which enabled her to frame significant moments of Italian social traditions.

This monography by Paola Birbanti is enjoyable and brilliant, and has the credit of rediscovering such a fascinating and powerful Italian female figure. The Umbrian writer was able to tell a new-old story about an eclectic and energetic artist and woman, mixing together Brunetta’s familiar and personal history, her artistic and professional, long and multifaceted career until the last part of her life and her unfortunate fall in social and historical oblivion. There is no better way to pay Brunetta Mateldi Moretti a tribute than to read her story along with the story of Italian social and historical costumes.

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