Mirella Bertarelli was born on March 28, 1922 in the Austrian town of Klagenfurt. Her parents are Italian. Her father, Ernesto, a doctor and researcher, is passionate about literature and publishing, so much so that for a period he will be director of the Hoepli publishing house in Milan. Mirella grows up among books. After a childhood spent in the Lombard capital, the young Mirella moves between German-speaking Switzerland and England where she obtains Proficiency Diplomas in English at the Universities of Sheffield and Cambridge, and at the same time a multilingual academic background. From a very young age she expressed her creativity: she wrote poems, in Italian and English, and in 1943, in her early twenties, she published her first collection: Giardino, edited by Scheiwiller. Six years later she marries Ludovico Matteo Bentivoglio, university professor of International Law, of which she chooses to adopt the suggestive surname. Together they will have three daughters: Marina, Leonetta and Ilaria. And it is precisely with motherhood that the vision of things changes, the artist discovers a linguistic process closely linked to the image, to the almost physicality of the word, in the total absence of syntax. The experience as mother marks a reconnection between image, sign and word, a sort of reset, where the codified word takes on a new dimension. “If I became an artist” she will say in an interview much later, “I owe it to motherhood. In fact, the whole problem of language – so important in my work – is a discovery that comes to me from that particular communication that a mother establishes with her children”.
Over the years Bentivoglio expands her academic and professional horizons. In 1958 she attended the Salzburg Seminar for American Studies, at the same time becoming passionate about art criticism. A few years later she wrote a monograph on the American artist of Lithuanian origin Ben Shahn, published by the De Luca editions (1963). Little by little, her interest in the joint use of verbal language and image is nourished, and the artist thus approaches those verb-visual movements of the international artistic neo-avant-gardes, born in the second half of the century and of which she would soon become the protagonist. Her artistic experiments travel between Concrete Poetry, Visual Poetry and Visual Writing. There are puns, decomposition of signifiers and connections of meanings, full of an intelligent irony that wants to exploit the visual potential of language. Some illustrative examples are Monumento (1968), Amputation (1971), and The heart of the obedient consumer (1975). Her fascination with the letters H, E and O is also fundamental, all of which have their own symbolic meaning. Both through her image and through her presence in the first person singular of the verb to have, the H represents prison, possession; the work “HO = cage” dates back to 1966. The E, on the other hand, means junction, concatenation, union: E = conjunction (1973). Finally, there is the O: individuality, origin, but also the opposition between empty and full, nothing and everything. In fact, this vowel contains multiple meanings for the artist, hence the use of the egg as one of the emblems of her work.
In 1968 her second collection of poems, Calendar, was published by Vallecchi, and at the same time she obtained the qualification for teaching Aesthetics and History of Art in the Italian Academies. The following year she participated for the first time in the Venice Biennale, which she attended eight more times (in 1973, in two different exhibitions in 1978, 1980, 1986, 1995, 2001 and 2009). In 1971 a first significant solo show took place at the Galleria Schwarz in Milan and two years later a second anthological one at the Galleria Pictogramma in Rome.
Over time, the artist explores the different languages of art, such as those of performance, poetry-action and poetry-environment. She sets up large symbolic structures of linguistic matrix on public land, of which the famous example is Ovo di Gubbio (1976). But above all, her version of the artist’s book was born in this period, made of stone and the result of the desire to give the book also physical immortality. It is in fact a challenge against the precariousness and vulnerability of books, of which she herself was a spectator, both during the Fascist prohibition and during the tragic flood of Florence in 1966. Books hidden in cellars and books damaged by mud, now find their indestructible strength in stone.
Bentivoglio often complains about the absence of the female voice in the artistic-cultural sphere, which is why she devotes herself busily and throughout her life to the activity of curator and organizer of female exhibitions. A significant example of this is the exhibition Visual Poetry, set up in Rome, in the Contemporary Art Studio at the beginning of 1974, an exhibition in which about twenty international artists exhibit, within the thematic dichotomy of female liberation and liberation of language, a choice of their works. A few years later, in 1978, Bentivoglio created another exhibition exclusively for women for the 37th Venice Biennale, Materialization of language. Here 80 artists strongly claim their own creative space where the male presence is still predominant. There will be many other opportunities to curate exhibitions of this kind over the years and even outside the Italian borders, here we will mention just a few: From Page to Space, Columbia University, Center for Italian Studies in New York, Fil-sophia – el concepte del fil en la dona-artist, Metrònom Gallery, Barcelona, 1982; Volùmina – the book-object revisited by the woman artist of our century, Rocca Roveresca, Senigallia, 1988; From Page to Space – Futurist Women Artists between Language and Image, Italian Cultural Institute, Helsinki, 1998; (S) cripturae – the secret writings: artists between language and image, Galleria Civica, Padua, 2001; The Italian Futurists in the Visual Arts, Information Museum, Senigallia, 2009.
Mirella Bentivoglio was also particularly recognized for her skills as an essayist in the context of verbal-visual art: hers is the drafting of the item Visual Poetry for the 1978 supplement of the Universal Encyclopedia of Art, expressly invited by the art critic, art and co-director of the Encyclopedia itself, Giulio Carlo Argan. Thirty years later, a book written jointly with Franca Zuccoli on Italian Futurist artists between language and image will arouse keen interest in critics: The Italian Futurists in the Visual Arts (De Luca, 2008). Bentivoglio took care of bringing to light the memory of the Italian Futurists who had worked between language and image in the first half of the twentieth century.
During the nineties, the artist arrived in America on the occasion of two important awards. In 1992 she participated in a group show at the MoMA in New York, while in 1999 the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington organized an anthology for her. Both American museums have some works by Mirella Bentivoglio in their permanent collection and, like them, also other important American institutes, including the Getty Institute in Los Angeles and the Sackner Archive in Miami. This decade also includes her retrospective at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome (1996) and her participation for the third and last time at the San Paolo Biennale (1994).
With the new millennium the artist’s exhibition activity intensifies, among the most important events there are the anthological ones at the Oculus Gallery in Tokyo (2010), at the Pomona College in Claremont (2003 and 2015), at the Eos studio in Rome (2013) and in the MACMA spaces (Matino and Lecce, between 2011 and 2013). As for the group exhibitions, Bentivoglio’s works are present at Palazzo Pitti, in Florence, in 2001 and at the Milan Expo in 2015.
In 2011 the artist donated her rich collection-archive of female art to the Mart (Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Trento and Rovereto). A collection that preserves years of deep commitment in the name of freedom of imagination and language, a commitment aimed at emancipation and equality.
A few days before her 95th birthday, in Rome, Mirella Bentivoglio dies: it is March 22, 2017.
A year after her death, a commemorative day was held in her honor at the Vittorio Emanuele National Central Library in Rome. The collection dedicated to her was presented, donated by her three daughters to the Library, and containing volumes, exhibition catalogues and various materials from her library-archive. Three years later, on May 24, 2019, the same Library inaugurated an exhibition space dedicated to the artist, located within the Spazi900 itinerary. The room named after Mirella Bentivoglio hosts the permanent exhibition of some of her works, and appears alongside spaces dedicated to authors such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Elsa Morante and Italo Calvino.
Also in 2019, the Laboratory Museum of Contemporary Art of the La Sapienza University dedicated a solo show to her with over forty works from the Garrera brothers’ collection. In the spring of the same year, her works are also present in the exhibition “The unexpected subject. 1978. Art and feminism in Italy”, held at Frigoriferi Milanesi.