Novecento Italiano was an Italian artistic movement founded in Milan in 1922 by Anselmo Bucci (1887–1955), Leonardo Dudreville (1885–1975), Achille Funi, Gian Emilio Malerba (1880–1926), Piero Marussig, Ubaldo Oppi and Mario Sironi. Motivated by a post-war “call to order”, they were brought together by Lino Pesaro, a gallery owner interested in modern art, and Margherita Sarfatti, a writer and art critic who worked on Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s newspaper, The People of Italy (Il Popolo d'Italia). Sarfatti was also Mussolini’s mistress.
The movement was officially launched in 1923 at an exhibition in Milan, with Mussolini as one of the speakers. After being represented at the Venice Biennale of 1924, the group split and was reformed. The new Novecento Italiano staged its first group exhibition in Milan in 1926.
Several of the artists were war veterans; Sarfatti had lost a son in the war. The group wished to take on the Italian establishment and create an art associated with the rhetoric of Fascism. The artists supported the Fascist regime and their work became associated with the state propaganda department, although Mussolini reprimanded Sarfatti for using his name and the name of Fascism to promote Novecento.
The name of the movement (which means 1900s) was a deliberate reference to great periods of Italian art in the past, the Quattrocento and Cinquecento (1400s and 1500s). The group rejected European avant garde art and wished to revive the tradition of large format history painting in the classical manner. It lacked a precise artistic programme and included artists of different styles and temperament, for example, Carrà and Marini. It aimed to promote a renewed yet traditional Italian art. Sironi said, “if we look at the painters of the second half of the 19th century, we find that only the revolutionary were great and that the greatest were the most revolutionary”; the artists of Novecento Italiano “would not imitate the world created by God but would be inspired by it”.
Despite official patronage, Novecento art did not always have an easy ride in Fascist Italy. Mussolini was personally uninterested in art and divided official support among various groups so as to keep artists on the side of the regime. Opening the exhibition of Novecento art in 1923 he declared that “it is far from my idea to encourage anything like a state art. Art belongs to the domain of the individual. The state has only one duty: not to undermine art, to provide humane conditions for artists, to encourage them from the artistic and national point of view." The movement was in competition with other pro-Fascist movements, especially Futurism and the regionalist Strapaese movement. Novecento Italiano also met outright opposition. Achille Starace, the General Secretary of the Fascist Party, attacked it in the Fascist daily press and there was virulent criticism of its “un-Italian" qualities by artists and critics.
The unity of the group depended much on Sarfatti and it weakened in her absence from Milan. When she lost her influence with Mussolini it fell apart and was formally disbanded in 1943.