Born on February 13, 1932 from a family of Jewish origins, Franca Coen, married Sonnino, grew up and still lives in Rome. After graduating in Literature, she devoted herself with love to her family, her artist’s hands weave the first threads to create sweaters and scarves for her children, home furnishings, and blankets for their nest.
It is the early 1970s, Franca’s children are still small, and on the floor below their apartment, located in the Balduina area, lives a small and lively Sardinian woman: the artist Maria Lai. A mutual fascination immediately arises between the two women, the world that Maria Lai brings with her captures the attention of the young housewife. From time to time she brings her the fabrics for her works (Franca’s husband works in the textile sector), but sometimes she brings her the dinner that Maria, immersed in her work, forgets to prepare. These were years of intense work for Maria Lai, who saw numerous students and young artists enter and leave her house-atelier, willing to learn her art. But what strikes Maria in the density of people that surrounds her is precisely that discreet neighbor with lively and curious eyes, and above all with very skilled hands. In their time together, which they both seek more and more often, the two women cultivate their bond through long discussions and readings. Franca observes Maria’s work and creation, while the latter urges her with one of her most emblematic phrases: “use your hands to create useless things, do not make useful objects anymore”. So Franca Sonnino initially tries her hand at painting, creating paintings on canvas in which the memory and the call of the spinning can be glimpsed through the thin painted lines. We can deduce that Maria Lai accompanied her friend in search of her creativity in a quiet, implicit way, holding her hand, but without showing her the way. Thus continuing to experiment in that creation of “useless things”, Franca Sonnino finds her main tool and her turning point precisely in the thread – an ancient symbol of the female world, the home environment and the “millennial absence of women”. There are first two-tone weaves, which she composes with knitting needles “as big as sticks” (Mirella Bentivoglio remembers, in a 2002 paper), and later is the use of the famous iron wire surrounded by wool or cotton.
After a first exhibition in Rome in 1972, the following year she held a significant solo show at the Galleria La Triade in Turin: the art critic Luigi Carlucci presented her work. On this occasion, the presence of Maria Lai everything but lacking, in helping setting up her friend’s works and observing with a smile the artistic growth of her “flagship”. The same year she also participated in the twenty-seventh edition of the Michetti Award, in Francavilla Al Mare, where her work will be visible on numerous occasions even in subsequent years. In 1974 a solo show was held at the Porta Romana Gallery in Milan, with the timely drafting of a text by Luigi Carlucci, while the following year it was the Schneider Gallery in Rome that hosted the artist’s works. Two years later Franca Sonnino is present at the Ravenna Art Gallery for a collective exhibition: Sign and identity: hypothesis-itinerary within female creativity, an all-female exhibition, curated by Marisa Vescovo and which sees the participation of 40 Italian artists, including Maria Lai. In 1980, after having collected personal exhibitions in various Italian cities (Milan, Naples, Imola, Savona, Bari and again Rome), she went to her friend’s homeland, on the occasion of a group exhibition, entitled Filo, Genesi e Filogenesi, at the gallery Arte Duchamp in Cagliari, where, five years later, a solo show will also be held. In 1982, her works came out of Italy for the first time, directed first to Barcelona, for the collective Fil ‘Sofia. El concepte del fil en la dona-artist, curated by Mirella Bentivoglio and held at the Metronom, and later in Australia, at the Quentin Gallery in Perth and Sidney.
In 1983, a major exhibition in honor of the Roman artist took place at Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara. Here her books and bookcases outlined by thread are presented, set up on white walls with their play of shadows and voids, in their imposing size and at the same time in their delicate lightness, all elements that characterize her elegant work. Marcello Venturoli wrote the presentation text of the exhibition, the critic who, already passionate about the art of Maria Lai, had highlighted the Roman artist in a 1978 text published in the magazine Bolaffi Arte. Venturoli emphasizes the poetic scent that transpires from Franca’s works, her “living in poetry” in an inevitable and unequivocal way, intrinsically linked to her condition as a woman.
The same year Franca also participated in the collective exhibition held in Quebec, at the La Chambre Blanche art gallery, and dedicated to Italian Contemporary Art. Later she attended the Lampedusa Prize and the Michetti Prize (XXXVI edition), moreover her works find space in two group exhibitions: in Milan, at the Rotonda Della Besana, and in Rome, at the Monte Analogo. In 1995 she presented an evocative exhibition in her studio, a fairytale staging of great ghosts and fantastic figures, made of nets, which extend from all directions to the surfaces of the house.
During the spring of 1988, after a conspicuous series of both personal and collective exhibitions, the Cooperative Cultural Experience of Bari organized a large exhibition dedicated to Franca Sonnino. Marcello Venturoli again writes the presentation text and this time the work protagonist of the exhibition are Landscapes on the wall: views of plowed fields and hills, in a hinted three-dimensionality, as suggested in their dream abstraction.
During 1990s Franca Sonnino participated in numerous group exhibitions, among these the female exhibition Le Muse Disquietanti stands out for its relevance. Current aspects of female artistic research, held in May at the Civic Museum of Rende, with the written participation of Elena Pontiggia and Federica di Castro. Three years later her works travel to New York, where they are exhibited at the Jonkers Education Art Center for the Photoidea exhibition, curated by Mirella Bentivoglio. The following year, in 1994, she held a solo show at the Galleria Il Gabbiano, in La Spezia, titled Oltre il Segno, an exhibition that marks the beginning of a long collaboration with the Ligurian gallery, which in fact will host the artist’s works in numerous occasions.
On January 1, 2000, the entry Franca Sonnino appears in the fifth volume of the encyclopedia of the History of Italian Art of the Twentieth Century, dedicated to the Thirties Generation, edited by Giorgio di Genova and published for the Bora editions.
In these years, Maria Lai returns to live permanently in Sardinia, in the Ogliastra countryside, but the deep bond established between the two women will never be broken. Their works will be exhibited together in 2019, at the Textile Museum of Busto Arsizio, with the exhibition entitled Maria Lai and Franca Sonnino. Masterpieces of Italian fiber art. Here the common denominator that binds their work is precisely the tool that unites them: the thread.
Among the exhibitions that have seen Franca Sonnino as protagonist in recent years we remember La Forma del Void, at the Complesso del Vittoriano, Rome (2005), The other / L’altra, Italian pavillion at the XI edition of Cairo (2008) and La Città, in La Cuba D’Oro of Rome.
Starting from 2019 Franca Sonnino is represented exclusively by the Repetto Gallery, which the same year organized the Threading Spaces exhibition, with works by Nedda Guidi, Elisabetta Gut, Maria Lai and Franca Sonnino.