Nenne Sanguineti Poggi, “NSP” (née Maria Franca Poggi, 5/31/1909 – 4/1/2012) was born in the Ligurian city of Savona (“the city of the three Popes”), into a family with a long history of involvement in culture and the arts.

1. Family history

NSP’s mother was born in Genova into the illustrious family Brigante-Colonna, and moved to Savona upon her marriage to Poggio Poggi, whose family was also part of the Genovese Cibo group of noble families with roots to the XVI century.
Her paternal grandfather, Vittorio Poggi, was a well-respected lawyer, journalist, soldier and patriot, archeologist, and a public Italian figure. Among his many roles, he was a leading scholar of ancient Etruscan languages and superintendent of the archeological Museum in Florence, still in existence today. He was commissioner for the Arts and Monuments of Liguria and Genova, and a prolific writer and promoter of legal and historical works.
Her father, a physician, recently described as a “Monuments Man” of Savona for his role in the preservation of its artistic treasures during WWII, promoted the development and organization of the present Art Museum of Savona. He also promoted the reconstruction of a famous medieval tower “Il Brandale” to its original height (the most important among the 50 that originally were part of the walls of the city) .

2. First phase: Prior to 1948

At age 14, NSP’s father, aware of her precocious and significant skills in drawing, organized for her to receive lessons by painter, Eso Peluzzi. The training continued for over three years, moving from still-life drawings to nude studies, and eventually to oils of landscapes and portraits.

By the 1930’s, she became involved with the ceramic center of Tullio Mazzotti in Albisola, where she experimented in the ceramic technique and observed the early works of ceramist and sculpture Arturo Martini.
She was also a habitual guest at the house of artist Paolo Rodocanachi and his wife Lucia, interacting with other dinner guests like Eugenio Montale, Lucio Fontana, Sbarbaro, Vittorini, Gadda, and Agenore Fabbri (who, in the 1940’s, in Milan, showed his predilection for her artwork).
In her family home, she met T.F. Marinetti, the author of the Futurist Manifesto and leader of the Italian Futurist Movement of 1909, as a guest and hosted by her father.
While still very young, she exhibited with the Ligurian Group of Savona, and later on in regional exhibitions in Genova, San Remo, Naples, Turin, the Galleria Fontana and the Triennale in Milan, with acclaims in the newspapers “Secolo XIX” of Genova, and the “Poligono” of Milan. Her drawings illustrated several publications including models of “haute couture” for the emerging Italian Fashion sponsored by the Italian Princess Maria Jose. They were acclaimed by E. Zanzi, art critic for the Gazzetta Del Popolo of Turin. A comment at a Venice exhibition read: “Poggi presents the only good drawings of the exhibition” (Gazzetta delle Tre Venezie, May, 1936).

In the Spring of 1937, she sailed for Africa, after a marriage by proxy. Her husband, Tito Sanguineti, was also from an old Ligurian family. In 1935 he went to the Italian colony of Eritrea as a mineral engineer for Agip in Asmara. This event would fundamentally change NSP’s entire personal and professional life.
She returned to Savona and to the paternal home in Finale Ligure in May, 1940, because of WWII, with her two-year old son, while her husband remained in Eritrea for what everyone expected would be a brief separation. But it would last 7 years. Her husband continued to work for Agip, delivering oil from Somalia to Asmara for the Italian troups before being taken prisoner by the English and sent to a camp in Addia Ababa, Ethiopia, until his escape. In the same year (1940) she was chosen for the “Mostra d’Oltremare” in Naples. In November, 1940, her father also died, at his doorstep, from a massive heart attack. She was 30 years old and had to face the horrors of WWII basically on her own, taking care of her son and mother while the communications with Eritrea and her husband became increasingly difficult, and eventually impossible. During those years she worked for a while in Milan, with the group of Lucio Fontana, until the hardships of the war made it impossible to keep traveling back and forth between Liguria and Milan. Several years and severe hardships followed, accompanied by violent deaths and the rapid decay and dissolution of the world order of her youth, until the end of the war, when she would return to Eritrea. The war caused an inevitable gap in her professional life. Still, she was able to emerge again in the Italian artistic landscape before her return to Africa, with exhibits in Genoa (1947) and Milan (1948).

3. Second phase: 1948-1970 – the African experience

3.a Professional establishment: the oil paintings; landscapes and local scenes “from real”

During the 1950’s, NSP rapidly positioned herself as the best and most productive painter in Eritrea and Ethiopia, with an impressive series of oils of post-impressionistic style; landscapes and figures and scenes of local life in the highlands, as well as in the deserts of the lowlands savannah. She held many personal exhibitions in Asmara and in Addis Ababa, during which she would sell scores of artworks. Her fame grew and spread across East Africa, from nearby Sudan to Egypt, Somaliland, Aden, Kenya, and even South Africa. Not infrequently, her exhibitions were inaugurated by figures of international renown, such as Italian ambassadors, Lady Ashley-Mountbatten, the Queen of Holland, and the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Sellassie. Concomitantly, she wrote articles on art themes, and was the special envoy to the United Nations for two Italian newspapers concerning the political future of Eritrea.

3.b The large public and private projects

The 1960’s showed NSP’s involvement in large public and private works in mosaic, ceramic, gouaches and concrete reliefs, alongside with her continued production and exhibitions of oil canvases. She would meet and befriend the Italian architect, Aruro Mezzedimi, who would entrust her to interpret his visions of collaborating decoration with architecture. He would introduce her the the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Sellassie, who would then commission her for several major works in various cities of his empire. One was the 860 square foot mosaic of the Talbot (the tabernacle) in the Church of Saint Mary of Axum, the holy city and holiest of sites in Ethiopia. The church had been rebuilt by the Emperor in the late 1950’s, with the sponsorship and support of Queen Elizabeth II. The mosaics depict various scenes of the history of the Ark of the Covenant, the Queen Sheba, and King Solomon. In Addis Ababa she was commissioned to illustrate, with drawings of the native flora, the 1700 square foot mural in the African Hall’s major hallway surrounding the central hall of Congress. In Asmara she was commissioned the seven 20 foot high mosaics on the front of the Church Enda Mariam, and the 40 foot mural at the Agazien School. In 1967 she was the recipient of the Imperial Medal in Addis Ababa. Other projects included works for churches, public buildings and private residences in Addis Ababa, Asmara, Cairo and Johannesburg.

4. Third phase: 1971-2012 – the return to the Italian homeland

4.a Readjustment and searching for new formulas

After her return to Italy, NSP experienced a period of difficult readjustment to the changes in the world surrounding her, as well as to the loss of her recognition and status. The paralysis, however, did not last long as she began to explore new venues to express her creative energy: ceramics, etchings, batiks and needlepoint! Curious and open to experimentation, her artwork continued to express her deep, affect-laden African experience, but now with a growing introspection toward spiritual themes, as seen in the series of the Angels of Lalibela and of the Landscapes of the Mind. She began to metabolize in creative and non-conventional ways the lessons from the avante-gardes of the early 1900s, ending in a courageous challenge with pure abstraction through the decomposition of the cubic matrix and through magical symbolism. In this way, in the arc of her long life, she completed a stylistic journey that is paradigmatic of what will be the most meaningful directional change in the Art of the 20th century: the passage from figurative representation to abstraction.

4.b Etchings and ceramics

A diplomat from the Academy of the Etching Arts patronized by Chagall and Carrà, NSP found, once again, in Italy, the technical support to express her masterly drawing skills on copper plates, and she created a rich production of etchings until close to her death. Among these is the series of the “Metamorphoses” through which she attempted to capture in her own words: “A, perhaps, simply imaginary psychological crisis that has deep roots in the beliefs of all peoples; the anguish of a being who perceives the imposition of different limbs, the transformation of one’s shape, and struggles with the horror of feeling his own body imprisoned in the body of an animal”. She also reconnected with the Mazzotti Center and created a limited number of fine ceramics along her preferred themes.

4.c The “Landscapes of the Soul” and the “Angels of Lalibela”

The motifs of African magic and her keen interest in the coptic, byzantine and illuminated sacred manuscripts, influenced her new phase of painting characterized by a focus on spiritual themes, and, in her own words, “the search for a common sadness”; while her techniques addressed, again in her own words, “the problem of moving away from simple representation; the persisting problem of Kandinsky after the problem of Cezanne”. To this phase belong her explorations into history, cultures and the arts; the “Landscapes of the Mind”; the series of the “Angels of Lalibela”, inspired by a visit to the famous Ethiopian churches and the legend of the homonymous king who built them; and a set of impressive batiks on African themes.

4.d The abstract expressions

NSP’s journey along the long arc of her life brought her eventually to pure abstract works, where faint boundaries are set to barely contain the creative idea. These works of very refined technique, and mostly using mixed media, are of significant evidence to her ability to extract from the development in the visual arts the enduring aspects of the various periods of artistic experimentation.

4.e Writings

In 2000, NSP published her “reasoned” autobiography entitled “Of What Color to Paint Oneself”. It consists of memories, impressions and experiences from over 90 years of life, narrated as vignettes, or as paintings contained in their own frames, that make up a vast, personal exhibition. This work represented her last contribution to her writing activity, which had already produced many articles and chapters of books.

4.f Exhibits

NSP’s process of reinventing herself brought her back into the public eye with a significant number of exhibitions. Aside from the multiple personal appearances in many Italian cities, she exhibited in such cities as Paris, Madrid and Dusseldorf, as well as cities in Connecticut, California, Pennsylvania and New York. Posthumously, she is on permanent exhibit at the Pinacoteca Art Museum in Savona. She is also a permanent part of the Wolfson Collection at the Palazzo Ducale in Genova. A “Retrospective “ exhibition showing 9 decades of her works is planned for March 20th at One Art Space Gallery in TribBeCa, NYC. Another exhibit this Spring in Perugia, Italy, will showcase pieces from her Italian collection. And there are discussions of a Fall exhibition at Milano’s MUDEC in collaboration with the Politecnico of Milano. We have also begun discussions of an exhibit in Addis Ababa through contacts with UNESCO who are there working on a preservation project of Africa Hall, where she has contributed public works as well.
4.g Recognitions and awards

A recipient of many international awards, at age 100, NSP entered her signature in the book of the most illustrious citizens of Savona, during a ceremony in her honor in the Red Room of the Town Hall of Savona. Posthumously, in 2013, she was the recipient of the Medal of Representation by the President of the Italian Republic, Giorgio Napolitano.

It is not difficult to understand Nenne Sanguineti Poggi’s brand as “An Artist Without Borders”, be it geographically, stylistically, and as a woman who would not be told she couldn’t or shouldn’t or wouldn’t.

Deborah Sanguineti (granddaughter) is the curator for the U.S. collection and Executive Director of NSP Arts (deborah.sanguineti@gmail.com). She works with Franco Parisi in Savona, Italy, who handles her Italian collection.

Edited by Joseph Ralph Fraia

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