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Exhibition in Florence takes deeper look at Marilyn Monroe

The Museo Salvatore Ferragamo's Marilyn exhibition presents the timeless star in a new light, albiet at times a confronting one.

Why is it that we just can’t let go of Marilyn Monroe? Fifty years after her apparent suicide, her face remains one of the most recognisable of all time.

The latest attempt to get to the heart of Monroe's mystique is to be found at the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo in Florence. What started a year ago as a look at the shoes designed by Ferragamo for the actress (she had scores of pairs of pointed pumps made by the Florentine shoemaker, always with the same 11-centimetre stiletto heel) is now a journey not only into the classical resonance of her image but also into the complexity of her character.

"Of course I thought about a concept," says Stefania Ricci, the museum's director and the exhibition's co-curator with Sergio Risaliti. "I wanted to underline that she had a brain, she was a businesswoman, she was intelligent, she was a wonderful person and actress in cinema and wardrobe. But [exploring] the photos, we found that many of the photographers, when they made their photographs, had in mind a piece of art."

The more they explored the history of those countless, compelling images of Monroe, by some of photography's greats, the more the theme began to make sense.

"I found that Cecil Beaton wrote that when he made photos of Marilyn he thought about Greece, about rococo, about pieces of art," says Ricci. "And Andre de Dienes wrote, during 1946 to 49, that Marilyn [is] like the Venus of Botticelli, like Leonardo da Vinci's Leda and the Swan."

It's a theme that makes one of the strongest rooms in the exhibition, with explicitly drawn comparisons that are wholly convincing, arguing for Monroe as a beauty as enticing as those made eternally famous by da Vinci and Botticelli.

The exhibition, however, isn't only about art. Two rooms are filled with clothes worn by Monroe, both on and off-screen - and, of course, those shoes. Though Ferragamo and Monroe never met, he handmade her shoes, almost invariably in the same design, and in countless variations of material: glittering red crystals cover one pair, while a simple brown-and-white correspondent shoe became iconic in Some Like it Hot.

Some of the film star's most famous frocks are there as well, including the white pleated dress from The Seven Year Itch and the bright pink satin gown worn in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (and copied in Madonna's Material Girl video), both designed by her regular costumier William Travilla.

The next room contains an artist's recreation of Monroe's bed, a sheet covering the form of a body. In the same room, the Italian poet Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1962 cine-poem response to her death, La Rabbia, plays, with its despairing soundtrack of Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor. It's a difficult room, teetering on the brink of bad taste, but at the launch last week guests were visibly moved, and Ricci defends its contents.

"I was a little terrified [to create this] because it was such a strong room," she says. "But finally it's so poetic because you have the wonderful image by Andre de Dienes and the movie of Pasolini. It was right to speak about the last days of Marilyn."

By the time you return to the exhibition's entrance, the mesmerising projection of an unhinged-looking Monroe dancing round a tree to eerie music, a scene from The Misfits, holds considerably more meaning.

Marilyn is at the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo in Florence, Italy, until January 28. See www.museoferragamo.it for more details.

Updated: June 26, 2012 04:00 AM