Every Wednesday on Roaming by Design, I will feature a book and/or its author to celebrate #WriterWednesday, a vivacious twitter trending stream that is all about the craft those of us who practice it love so much. My first #WriterWednesday guest is Susan Van Allen, whose newly-released book 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go has received high praise from lauded writers like Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun and the newly released sequel Every Day in Tuscany. Mayes remarked, “This book makes me want to pack my bag with the lightest of clothing and follow Susan Van Allen’s alluring suggestions for traveling in Italy. Her knowledge reveals an intimacy with the country and a honed sense of adventure. Andiamo!”
I’m excerpting Chapter 26 of Van Allen’s lively exploration of some of Italy’s femme-friendly destinations: this, the sumptuous former home of Mariano Fortuny. If you’ve spent any time in the design world—as many of you know I have—the name Fortuny is synonymous with luxuriant fabrics and lighting. Now it will be forever tied to this great stop on Van Allen’s every-woman express. I’d love to know your favorite place to visit in Italy (whether you’re a woman or not). I’ll be awarding an iPhone app of Van Allen’s book to a reader. Simply post in the comment section your favorite place in Italy and why. We’ll announce the winner on Tuesday, March 16. Now for a generous helping of Van Allen’s insightful prose:
Venice Venetians called this place “The House of the Magician.” It’s where Mariano Fortuny, who became world famous for his outrageously gorgeous fabrics, gowns, and lamps, set up his home and workshop in 1907. There was a woman behind his success: Henriette Negrin, who he met in Paris in 1897, when she was a French widow, a model and a seamstress. She became his muse, collaborator, and wife—after they lived together for twenty-two years. You’ll see Fortuny’s paintings of Henriette here—some nude, others with her dressed elegantly with her hair swept up, along with photographs of their trips to Greece and Egypt, where Fortuny got lots of inspiration. In the museum where they once lived and worked together, you enter the world of this eccentric, twentieth-century Renaissance man.
Fortuny was born in Granada in 1871, to both a father and grandfather (on his mother’s side) who were highly acclaimed painters in Spain. His father died when he was three, so his mother took him to live in Paris, and also traveled about, until they finally settled in Venice, because Fortuny was horribly allergic to horses, and this was the only place around without carriages. After his early artistic endeavors in painting and photography, and success in designing sets and lighting for theater, Fortuny, at thirty-six years old, began his work on printed fabrics here with Henriette. He’d already had an attic studio in the thirteenth-century palazzo, and then bought the building that had been cut up into apartments and gutted it, turning it into a free-flowing creative space.
The walls of the first floor’s large rectangular room are covered with Fortuny’s patterned fabrics, creating a warm, exotic, colorful ambience. His paintings and lamps surround displays of his gowns and capes that were worn by such illustrious women as Eleanora Duse, Sarah Bernhardt, and Isadora Duncan. Fortuny broke into the woman’s fashion world in 1907 with his Delphos gown, inspired by tunics from ancient Greek statuary. It was simple and finely pleated, in soft, shimmering colors. Women happily tore off their corsets to put on the sensational dress that elegantly draped their bodies. He packaged it rolled up in a hatbox, so it was easy and light for travel.
The second floor of the museum gives you an idea of what life was like when 100 workers were there producing Fortuny fabrics, under Henriette’s supervision. In contrast to what’s below, it’s stripped bare with only huge worktables. Off to the side is Fortuny’s library and personal workshop, where you’ll get a hit of the practical side of this free-spirited artist. It’s packed with volumes of books about artists who came before him, lots of journals where he catalogued designs and colors, his paints and tools.
Fortuny’s preferred entrance to this palazzo was climbing through the skylight, straight into his workshop. Fortuny’s fabric designs, of intricate swirls, animals, and geometric prints, on cotton, silk, or velvet, clearly show his influences from Spain and travels to Greece and farther east. But ultimately, they’re completely Venetian, reflecting the cultural melting pot of the city, with rich colors muted by the city’s fog, or glistening in gold or silver sunlight. He was called “the magician” because nobody could figure out exactly how he produced these fabrics, and his techniques are still kept secret.
Fortuny’s lights come in floor, table and pendant variations
You’ll be so tempted to reach out and touch them in the museum, but you can’t. For a tactile experience, head to the Fortuny Showroom on Giudecca, or one of the Venetia Studium stores in Venice, where you can even buy a scarf, pillow, purse, or lamp to take home and keep a little bit of the Venetian magician in your life. Palazzo Fortuny Museum: Campo San Beneto (San Marco), 10-6, closed Tuesday. Showroom: Fortuny SPA, Giudecca 805, 041 528 7697 (next to Hilton Molino Stucky, which has a great terrace to stop for a cocktail and enjoy the view of the Venice mainland). Venetia Studium Stores: Calle Larga XXII Marzo 2404, Merceria San Zulian 723, San Marco.
Golden Day: Visit the Palazzo Fortuny and have lunch or an apertivo at da Fiore (Calle del Scaleter, San Polo 202, 041 721 308, closed Sunday and Monday). I thank Susan for her amazing post. I can’t wait to take the book (or better yet, the app) with me when I return to Italy this fall. For another heartfelt #WriterWednesday effort, visit my blog The Road to Promise, where my memoir about my experiences in the mission field is unfolding week-by-week.