The Fortuny – A Family Story at Palazzo Fortuny Venice
A few months ago a dear friend, Nancy Heckler from the USA, on one of her visits to Venice, mentioned she had just brought her mother’s dress to Palazzo Fortuny. Of course I was immediately intrigued by it: what was so important about this dress, to be taken to the famous Fortuny mecca?
Palazzo Fortuny was going to hold an amazing exhibition about the Fortuny Family and they were gathering dresses, fabrics and much more from around the world and they asked Nancy if they could display her mother’s dress in Palazzo Fortuny.
A little girl dream
But why Nancy’s Mother Dress?
Well, simple: it was one of the most famous dresses that Mariano Fortuny ever designed, the Delphos – the dream dress which every woman in the Belle Époque era (and not only during those years) would have loved to wear! And one that Nancy’s mother, a very famous model, not only got to wear, but to own and take care of for many years, like a relic!
She stored it neatly and safely in a beautiful box and would take it out to show it to her little girl Nancy only on particular occasions, as you do with the most precious things in life. When she took it out, she used to show Nancy the perfect way to fold it and Nancy would scream: Again, again, show me again!
Of course Nancy felt very honoured by the request of Palazzo Fortuny and immediately accepted.
Preview of the new exhibition at Palazzo Fortuny
Let’s skip to the present – 9th May 2019!
Preview of the new exhibition at Palazzo Fortuny, Fortuny – La Storia di una Famiglia.
With my dear friend and artist Marisa Convento of Venetian Dreams, who knows everything there is to know about the world of fashion, fabric and beads in Venice and beyond (and who is also taking part in the Biennale with her creations for the Antigua and Barbuda Pavilion), I got to attend to the opening of the exhibition.
Nancy was there, very proud and quote emotional, seeing her mother dress finally on display for all to see. I can only imagine how she felt!
It is such an honour!
But who was Mariano Fortuny?
Mariano Fortuny, 1871-1949, was a very talented all-around character with infinite skills: a painter, a sculptor, a designer, a scenographer and technical artist, a lighting technician, a creator of printed fabrics and fashion clothes, constantly poised between tradition and research; one of the most important characters of the 20th century.
Fortuny was known above all for his textile production and his clothes, which fascinated the most refined International clientele.
Fame came from his creative genius, but above all, from a direct knowledge of decorative motifs, attained through the collections inherited from his family, and the methodical study of ancient and modern printing techniques, of colours and raw materials, which allowed him to experiment different combinations of pigments, obtaining new and inimitable chromatic effects.
His inventive activity in the textile field – proved by numerous patents, filed in Italy and abroad, relating to dyeing processes, to mechanical devices he developed for the press and to his designed models – was joined with the happy intuition of what broad commercial perspectives that a material such as cotton, with its elemental simple features, could have had when woven and dyed in imitation of the finest silk brocades.
Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo was born in Granada on 11 May 1871. He was the son of Mariano Fortuny y Marsal, a well-known Spanish painter and collector of Hispano-Moorish ceramics, armours and oriental style clothes and fabrics, and of Cecilia de Madrazo, descendant of an important family of Spanish painters, architects and art critics.
As you can see, an extremely important heritage!
In 1874 Mariano’s father died suddenly, so his mother moved the family to Paris, where the boy spent a happy childhood and adolescence, painting and sculpting, in Auguste Rodin‘s studio.
But his immense curiosity pushed him further: he began to take an interest in technological innovations in the field of electric lighting, especially the ones used in theatres. The painter Giovanni Boldini, a friend of his father, often accompanied Mariano to the theatre to see the dances and he remained so impressed by it that he began to study theatrical models.
Mariano Fortuny in Venice
In 1889, the family moved to Venice, in Palazzo Martinengo, on the Grand Canal, and soon the residence became a meeting place for artists and writers: Proust, José Maria Sert, Henry Deregniér; meanwhile Mariano continued with his pictorial studies, trying new colour mixes and engraving techniques.
He performed the sketches for the scenes and costumes of the tragedy Francesca da Rimini by Gabriele D’Annunzio, whom he met in 1894; in 1899 he produced, under request of the Countess Albrizzi, the scene of “Mikado” a very popular operetta of the time; after a few years, Mariano moved into what would become his definitive residence: Palazzo Orfei.
He designed and tested a new indirect lighting system for the theatre, which he patented in 1900; he also built the Fortuny Dome, patented in 1904, a stage apparatus that allowed to concentrate the light on the scene and to easily control and regulate its diffusion.
Right in the middle of the Belle Époque, he met Henriette Nigrin, the woman who would later become his wife, his lifelong inspiring muse, as well as his greatest collaborator, with regards to the textile-printing workshop.
In 1906, the inauguration of a Parisian theatre to which Fortuny had participated since the planning phase, marked a turning point in his professional career.
Fortuny, the designer of fabrics and dresses
For the first time he saw his inventions applied and, for the occasion, he also designed the costumes: large printed silk shawls, which later became famous with the name of Knossos, which were draped over the whole body.
In Paris he began to conduct experiments on printing and colouring fabrics.
He abandoned printing by using wood matrices and made his own the far more complex technique of Japanese pochoirs (katagami), which he modified according to his exploitation on an industrial scale.
In 1910 he patented a new technique: the combination of a printing process similar to screen printing with the mechanism of continuous bandwidth that significantly reduced the costs of printing, compared to other procedures and allowed the repetition of figurative patterns on large fabrics.
In the space of a few years the production of the Venetian laboratory of Palazzo Orfei grew considerably, reaching to employ, on the eve of the First World War, over a hundred workers.
The fabric was for Fortuny the basic material to work with; he bought the raw pieces, dyed them, printed them, pleated them and embellished them.
Silks came from China, India and Japan; velvets were used for capes and cloaks, while voile for lamps.
The Delphos Dress
After the success of the shawl Knossos, it was the turn of the Delphos, a thickly pleated tunic in ivory silk satin, inspired by the tunics of Greek sculptures, made with a thick pleating, to form a cylindrical shape that naturally shaped itself on the body. The edges were irregular, trimmed with Murano glass beads that acted as weights.
Many famous women wore it: Natacha Rambova, the wife of Rudolph Valentino, Mrs Condé Nast, Nancy Cunard as well as the one and only Peggy Guggenheim.
Born as a tea gown, it became the symbolic dress par excellence of the “earthly goddesses”, like Henriette, his wife, who was photographed by Fortuny himself wearing a Delphos in 1935. Inspired by the Greek chiton, Mariano imagined several versions: red, pink, indigo blue, ochre, all natural colours to which gold or silver powders were added to obtain a metallic effect.
The creation of fabrics and clothes, to which Fortuny still owes its fame, was an expression of the climate of overall renewal of the arts, inspired by the Art Nouveau movement.
Actresses and dancers of the calibre of Isadora Duncan, Eleonora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt wore on the scene and in private life many of Fortuny’s clothes. He then used their fame to make his style known and impose it on the market European.
Decisive in giving new impetus to production activity in the aftermath of the First World War, was the transfer of the fabric activity to the Giudecca factory, owned by the industrialist Gian Carlo Stucky, then sold to the Fortuny Anonymous Company, established in 1923, where the production of printed cottons for the furniture, perfectly imitating silk brocades, was started.
Fortuny fabrics, in addition to being used in costume making and in the preparation of numerous theatrical performances, decorated patrician houses and large hotels, churches and exhibition halls.
During the thirties, sales abroad decreased and new difficulties arose with the introduction of bans on the import of silks, velvets and cottons, throwing the company into a serious crisis.
Mariano Fortuny died in 1949. The Fortuny Anonymous Society ceased to exist in 1951, when the Giudecca factory was awarded to the joint stock company Tessuti Artistici Fortuny, founded by the countess Elsie McNeill, who was persuaded by Henriette to continue with Fortuny’s work.
At the beginning of the fifties, the factory mainly produced printed cottons. The love of the American Countess for the work of Fortuny meant that he became increasingly famous in America, where the most important museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of New York and the County Museum of Los Angeles, inserted Fortuny fabrics and clothes in their collections.
The velvets were quite symbolic, with designs of arabesques, floral motifs and foliage.
The designs that Mariano used were part of his culture so much that some clothes were given the name of: Spanish cape, Shéhérazade, Velvet Abacus Operated.
Although Fortuny patented his printing technique, to this day it remains a mystery on how he printed and manufactured his fabrics.
It seems that he painted the fabrics upside down and then printed them with the “pochoir” technique.
Only at the Giudecca factory, which still today prints Fortuny fabrics, they jealously guard the secret. Fortuny’s clothes go beyond fashion, they are immune to the passage of time, on the contrary, the more time goes by, and the more they acquire an aura of modernity.
The exhibition The Fortuny, A family Story
I had the opportunity to visit the exhibition on the pre-opening day with Nancy herself and my friend Marisa.
The Fortuny, A family Story, opened in conjunction with the 58th Biennale Arte, dedicates an exhibition space for the first time to both Mariano Fortuny and to his father Mariano Fortuny y Marsal, one of the greatest painters of the nineteenth century Spanish.
The exhibition highlights above all two aspects of the Fortuny: the practice of pictorial art and the practice of collecting.
Mariano was in fact a remarkable collector of antique objects such as furniture, carpets, glass, vases and much more. This huge collection was, by the will of the Fortunies themselves, dispersed in the collections of the various museums of Europe and only a small part remained in the city. Now this exhibition tries to partially recompose the collection inside the Palazzo Fortuny spaces.
The atmosphere is unique: the low lighting, the scenery and the dresses, make it one of the most beautiful exhibitions I ever saw.
But sometimes the lighting is really too low and it makes it difficult to enjoy the fabrics on display, to notice the small details and the quality of the artwork!
Another down point is that the curators decided not to have clear indications under each piece, explaining what you are actually admiring. You are supposed to pick a piece of sheet as you enter each room and read each caption on the paper with a number. Too old fashioned, too complicated.
I hope they will be putting a caption under each piece on display explaining where it comes from and what it is.
Opening hours: from 10.00 to 18.00 (the ticket office closes one hour before).
Closed on Tuesday
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