Venice - Fortune and Fortuny

Hi there,

Back from holidays feeling revved up and ready to go in the sewing room.  Hope you have had or are having a fab time on your vacation, wherever it may be.   We certainly had an amazing time.  We visited Venice last year for a few days and fell in love with this magical city and decided to return to take a closer look...a much closer look in fact.

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Two weeks in any city gives you the chance to explore a little deeper than the quick whistle stop tour of a long weekend and we did indeed delve down alleyways, wander around some of the wonderful palazzo house museums and pop into the plethora of stunning churches on the island and soak up the sunshine of the world's first Lido.  It is a great place to go - you have everything, history, beach, great food, boat rides and culture and the enjoyment of a totally unique city, free from cars and roads.   It is crowded ... at times frustratingly so.... as hoards of people from every corner of the world clamber to photograph the canals and picturesque scenes at every twist and turn... and it is hot....but there is so much to see and it just 'awesome'.   You can escape easily from the main thoroughfares and find beautiful smaller waterways full of Venetian Charm and far from the madding crowds.

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One of the places on my list to go, was the Fortuny Museum.   I am not entirely sure, when or how the 'Fortuny' style came to be lodged in my mind, but I am thinking that it was sometime around 13.  Always fascinated by historical costume, I would scour the local library, usually in vain, for books about this and it's ever changing evolving ideas and I remember having a book with some pictures of Fortuny dresses.   These finely pleated creations were a complete right turn away from the staid corseted designs of the early 20th century.   The liberating movements in costume design in the 1920's which cast aside so many long held ideas were a breath of fresh air for women and Mariano Fortuny was a pioneer and a unique force in fabric design as well as style... or was he?   For sure, what I understood after my visit to his bohemian palace, is that, yes, it was something new, but it also had it's roots in something very old and close to the venetian heart.

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He seems to have been a very unusual man.   As is written in the small book I purchased "Fortuny the collector, magician and alchemist, artist and artisan can be liked to a veritable encyclopedia, a notion that, according to Umberto Eco, should be envisaged as the library of all libraries or a sort of labyrinth".   His house is a testament to this.

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It is a vast palazzo, with enormous central rectangular rooms on each floor - and I mean enormous! These saloons were used as studio and design space as well as production facilities - at one time, it housed a small factory employing around 100 workers.   Now used as exhibition space and a sampling of the bohemian style, adorned with swathes of his fabrics and his paintings and an eclectic mix of wildly diverse collections.   I have to confess that I was totally disappointed not to be able to see any of this costumes - instead there was an exhibition of a private collection of modern (weird) stuff, which seemed to bear no relation to Fortuny and this I do find incomprehensible.  I am sure they do have a store of his dresses and I am sure this is what visitors really want to see.  Anyhow, the large saloon on the second floor was much more interesting and had the feel of an explorer in the art nouveau age.  It is tumbledown and grand at the same time; chaotic, decadent and faded, it is a reflection of this extraordinary man.

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Born in 1871 in Granada, Spain, Mariano Fortuny was the son of famous 19th century painter, who died early and after a sojourn in Paris with his family, Venice became his adopted home.  The young Mariano, a gifted child, showed rare skills and a passion for not just creativity, but technical detail too.  He thought he would be a painter and began to study art.  But it was the methods used which really fascinated him and very soon, the ideas of the interplay of colour and light became the keys to his future.    He was interested in everything, printing, engraving, history, science and he lived in a bohemian world of artists and scholars.    In 1899, he opened a studio on the Palazzo Pesaro-Orfei in the area of San Beneto, which became in time, both laboratory, factory and his home.  He also spent time in Paris.  He mixed physics with creativity, worked on lighting devices and stage sets and design.  His 'Fortuny Dome' was a new idea with a concave sphere that gave the illusion of depth on stage.   He met his future wife - Henrietta Nigrin, who would turn out to be a life long companion - a woman who understood and supported his projects, and even ran his textile factory in later years.

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Fortuny's painting of his wife

 From 1903 he worked for three years on the renovation of a private theatre of the Countess of Bearn.  In the project he used a velvet curtain, embellished with a design using his own textile printing technique.  This was to be come one of his signature concepts and he worked and improved on it for years.

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Around 1907, he began to focus entirely on working with textiles and theatrical costume design.   His references though, were undoubtedly inspired by the classical images of draped fabrics.   We took a day trip out to the beautiful city of Verona and there in a small archaeological museum I found this stunning marble statue - the links are clear.

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In 1907 he exhibited 15 designs in Paris and these were seen instantly as revolutionary and liberating.   Sweeping aside the formal dress codes of the era, he was offering an alternative that was free and innovative and completely beautiful.  He was an instant success.   Fortuny began to experiment with printing, overlaying colours using wooden blocks on luxurious fabrics like Velvet and Silk.   He was a scientist, he mixed and blended, stirred and pounded.  His study in the house was a mixture of laboratory, library, studio and museum.  Any form that interested him was sketched and painted, reinvented and experimented with.   In 1909, he filed a patent for his world famous pleated silk fabrics.   The dress he created from this are inspired by ancient greek  designs that draped on countless statues.  He called the dress 'Delphos'.   After exhibiting at the Decorative Arts    Exposition of 1911, he began to sell on a bigger scale, opening shops in  Paris and London.   A year or two later, his designs reached America.  His creations were sort after by royalty, the rich and famous nobility of the world.   From then on, he was assured of his place in history.

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This photograph shows Lady Bonham Carter wearing a Fortuny Delphos Gown purchased in Venice around 1920.

 The dresses look fascinating in the pictures, the pleats weighted by tiny Murano glass beads, hand stitched along the draping edge of the silk.  The formula to his pleating was a closely guarded secret that he developed with his wife and it was many years before more mechanised techniques would find a way to make permanent pleats in garments.  He built a factory on the small island opposite San Marco, Guidecca with a business partner Giancarlo Stucky.  You can still see their names today on the buildings of the island.  

He developed  interior textiles, decorations and lamps as well as clothes and furnished some of the great saloons of the day.  Like many high end producers of the time, Fortuny did suffer with the advent of the second world war and the decline of the aristocracies of Europe and the great houses that had played host to his creations.  Mariano Fortuny died in 1949.    He left behind a legacy that is not just the pieces he created, but the idea that it is all in the detail, technical and creative.  The richness and lustre of his designs will delight and inspire generations to come and remain much sought after pieces.   I suppose to surmise,  you could say that they have a flavour of the decadence of Venice, an aura of classical precision and a spark of revolutionary fervour that is just irresistible.

 And irresistible it is.....plans afoot.

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Hope you will stop by again soon to see if they worked out.

Ruby x