Presences of Mariano Fortuny Y Madrazo in Venice or ‘le but de ma vie est l’Art’
Mariano Fortuny was a multifaceted versatile person, a resourceful talent from a wealthy prestigious family.
After the death of his father, also named Mariano, his mother Cecilia moved to Paris with her two children – Mariano Junior and Maria Luisa – and, after a few years, to Venice where Mariano remained until his death in 1949.
Mariano lived the last decades of his life in Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei, now Palazzo Fortuny (photos 1 and 2), which still features his amazing studio (photos 3, 4 and 5), his library (photo 6) and many of his works of art (photos 7 and 8).
Everything is owned by the city of Venice at the behest of his wife Henriette Negrin – or Nigrin – to whom Mariano left his belongings, even the building which is now the Fortuny House-Museum (photo 9).
He had a vast eclectic culture and was a man of learning competent in many disciplines as he designed fashion pieces, interior pieces and costumes. He could photograph with a skilled eye and, as an inventor, he created lamps, fabrics and clothes (photos 10 and 11) including the elegant silk Delphos gown made with the help of his muse and future wife Henriette.
The Delphos gown exalted the woman’s body, finally freeing it from all constrictions. Mariano himself stated that it was Henriette who, a few years prior, had discovered the special heat pleating technique that resulted in a fabric with minute irregular folds (five folds per cm and no longer one or two per cm).
This extraordinary gown was worn by some of the most famous women of the time including Eleonora Duse, Peggy Guggenheim and Marchioness Casati and was appreciated by writers such as Proust and D’Annunzio. This silk pleated chiton-tunic, inspired by the Charioteer of Delphi, is still very charming, but, unfortunately, the entire production of all garments by Fortuny ended in 1949 with the death of Mariano and was never taken up by the original factory.
Light, in its different variations and applications, was Mariano’s main interest: the light-shadow of incisions made with all kinds of tips (some special and soft like those of toothbrushes) used to create different effects, the clear diffused light of photography and the indirect adjustable light of theatres. He was also interested in the intense and often contrasting light in paintings, which were autonomous at the beginning and then created according to a scenic theatrical function.
His creations that have survived to this day include drawings, fabrics, photographs, paintings (photos 12 and 13), theatre models and scenes as well as the famous Fortuny theatre dome, a section of a sphere, i.e. half a dome, a quarter of a concave sphere. It was patented in the early 1900s to concentrate and dilate the light, but also to reproduce the sunrise, sunset and night-time, and to shift or adjust the light onstage.
It was a totally innovative concept of lighting technology applied to stage design made also possible by the discovery of electric lighting. In the early 1920s, this adjustable indirect light was employed not only by some important European theatres – German in particular – but also by the Scala in Milan.
Among his numerous interests, fabrics held a place of honour. His passion derived partly from his parents (who had always appreciated and collected them, especially Oriental ones), partly from his partner Henriette (who had already worked in this field before meeting him and who had an extensive family collection), and it was also partly due to his endless curiosity.
On the top floor of Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei (photo 14), still part of the important Fortuny Museum which will not be discussed here, Mariano and Henriette had created a silk printing workshop (also used later on for gauze and light velvet) which eventually employed up to one hundred people under Henriette’s management.
Later on, the Fortuny factory set up an expanded semi-industrial production of printed cotton fabrics on the Giudecca island. The cotton had to achieve an extraordinary lightness almost imitating that of silk, without detracting from the previous manufacture of shimmering damask velvet nor from the gauze or almost-transparent silk used for the famous knossos veils.
Cotton was sometimes processed in a special way to convey the effect of gold or silver with no metallic threads but only using copper and aluminium powders blended with the pigments. The various blends created different hues and remain something unique in this sector.
The cotton was long-fibre Egyptian cotton and the fabric was then dried without using drying machines, therefore impeding the development of the fuzz that takes away its shine, as is still carried out today in the same factory using the same machines invented by Fortuny, the same moulds carved by him, the same wooden pads and the same tools.
The purchase, in 1919, of the area sold to him by his friend and partner Stucky for the Giudecca factory included the old garden of the Benedictine monastery that had been closed over a century earlier by Napoleon. The factory opened soon after and was extended in both height and length in 1927.
The garden went through alternating phases in the 1900s even though it always remained delimited to the West by rio di San Biagio, separating our insula from that of the old Mulino Stucky (now a hotel), and to the South by rio delle Convertite.
One of the most important transformations was the construction of the pool and exedra, with the changing rooms dating back to soon after the middle of the last century (photo 15) where there was also a cavana (a sort of garage-shelter for boats) with a water door. The position is slightly reminiscent of that of the traditional Venetian casino (small house used as a tea-house, library or to host friends in an informal way) which was often located opposite the main entrance and, as in this case, on a canal.
The other formal element added in the mid-1900s was the greenhouse, built by Elsie McNeill Lee and destroyed in the fire at Mulino Stucky in 2001.
Elsie, with her first husband Humphrey Lee, was the person who – at Henriette’s request – took over the factory on the Giudecca island after Mariano’s death.
Elsie is known in Venice as Countess Gozzi as her second marriage was to Count Gozzi, descendant of the famous Venetian family of writers. She was and is remembered as a “character”: just think that, when someone asked her to purchase a small section of a fabric (i.e. a remnant of a Fortuny fabric) she replied that, rather than sell such a little, she would have thrown everything into the water (!!). As a result of this principle, the mono-brand New York showroom can still be entered by wholesalers only.
However, her role during Mariano’s life and after his death was essential, as was also the shrewd choice of appointing Maged F. Riad as her successor, the founder of a family that still successfully manages the Fortuny company.
This is an eclectic garden, so we must read the signs from different periods. In the beginning, it was definitely a vegetable plot with maybe livestock, such as those found in monasteries and convents. Flowerbeds used to be a feature up until a few decades ago.
After a courtyard with the traditional well-head (photo 16), a long grassy path (photo 17) along the rose-covered factory (photo 18) leads to a grove (photos 19 and 20).
The grove, delimited by a lovely photinia (photo 21), was not typical of ancient Venetian gardens, but rather of 19th-century romantic gardens. Here, however, the trees were planted later and are all in excellent condition: cedars of Lebanon (photo 22), Scots pines, Norway spruces and cypresses not to mention lime trees, oaks, magnolias, a lovely sophora (photo 23), and so on.
The trees alternate with the sculptures dotted here and there among which Venus (photo 24) and Adonis (photo 25) stand out and can be seen from multiple angles.
The sculptures are a feature taken from traditional Venetian gardens, where statues often express the strength of nature, or beauty as is the case with Venus, or the regeneration after the “dead” season, as Adonis reminds us.
The garden axes are in this case lateral and parallel, not perpendicular as is usual in Venice, and are partly covered in white and lilac wisteria (photo 26) supported by lovely columns albeit with disproportioned capitals.
There is also a rose berceau (photo 27), typical of Venetian gardens, as well as flowers such as camellias, roses (photos 28 and 29), jasmines (photo 30), hibiscus, periwinkles (photo 31) and so on, which inspired Mariano’s fabrics.
Reintroducing the connection between textiles and flowers or plants was not only a good idea of the recent women restorers of the garden but also a homage to Mariano for his great attention to nature. Some fabrics are reminiscent of his way of repeatedly reproducing flowers, fruits, leaves and branches in stylized form (photos 32 and 33).
The visit to the garden will be followed by a tour of the showroom where the fabrics will be available for detailed observation of the sample collection both in large rolls (photo 34) and in a big “book” called “wings” (photo 35).
The fabrics feature not only the motifs created by Mariano during the course of his life, but also new or updated ones by the design studio operating within the factory in order to provide its faithful clientele with a wider choice. They are created in line with contemporary trends, more or less traditional or abstract.
See for example the recreation on fabric of the marvellous marble inlay of the Church of the Jesuits (photos 36 and 37).
The recovery and reinterpretation of the military design is also interesting, although it features a renewed subject inspired by photos of the water and islands rather than leaves and is made even more precious by its coppery glimmers (photo 38).
The showroom is also the only place in the world where small Fortuny fabric samples can be purchased, as the other existing stores are only accessible to major clients.
Despite the lack of important historic testimonies such as Mariano’s incisions, photographs, paintings, fabrics, etc., which can only be suitably and extensively admired in the Museum of Palazzo Fortuny, the area comprising the garden, fabric building and showroom provides a glimpse – not usually possible – of one of the few Venetian crafts and industrial realities which are difficult to imagine and rare to see.
The visit to the entire complex (excluding the interior of the factory which jealously safeguards the secrets of the Fortuny production) is possible upon request and requires early booking.
Take advantage of the chance to see this corner of Venice with a BestVeniceGuide!