Touring Italy with Susan Van Allen

Fortuny's lights come in floor, table and pendant variations

Fortuny’s lights come in floor, table and pendant variations

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.

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.

  • Paul Anater

    My favorite Italian vacation EVER was when some friends and I rented an apartment in a cliff side villa in Sorrento. I haven’t stopped talking about it in the two years since my stay at the Villa Terrazza. Here’s the website: the video Andrea just added to his site and you’ll understand why that Sorrentine escape stands out.

  • Saxon Henry

    OMG: the computer image took my breath away. I can’t imagine how it felt to be looking at that view in person. Did you have an ocean-facing room? I don’t think they’d ever be able to make me leave!

  • Paul Anater

    I stayed in the first floor apartment, il Golfo on the website. I woke up to the sight of Mt. Vesuvius looming over the Bay of Napoli every morning. I went into full-on mourning for six months after I got back to the US. I will never be the same.

  • Saxon Henry

    I can only imagine. A place with a soulful resonance like that touches so deeply, it’s hard to get back to reality. I hope to have one of those experiences one day but I can’t say that I have…

  • Julie Richey

    Rome wins my vote for favorite place, just for the diversity, history, activity and vitality of the city. But when visiting Rome, I always make time to drive a few miles south on the Via Appia to the Castelli Romani region. In Castelgandolfo, the site of the Pope’s summer palace, the town sits on the edge of Lago Albano, a volcanic lake. Just off the main piazza is Bucci, a charming restaurant with an outdoor terrace covered in blooming Jasmine and grapevines. Dinner there on a June evening, eating fresh green olives and drinking the local white or Frascati while gazing straight down the cliff to the serene blue lake below is sublime. And the food’s not bad, either…

  • Saxon Henry

    I can tell this is going to be one of the dreamiest posts I’ll ever have! Keep the stories coming everyone!

  • Nan

    I am so happy Susan featured Fortuny and his home-now-museum in her 100 Places. He and it are too, too often overlooked by the traveler to Venice, and the museum, much like the Guggenheim, has such a sense of “home” in a rich, evocative ambience. It hosts some wonderful exhibits, too.Brava Susan, brava Saxon!

  • Saxon Henry

    It’s true, Nan: there are so many things to do in Venice that it could certainly slip by unnoticed. I’m glad you liked the post. I’m thrilled to be able to feature Susan’s book!

  • Sonia King

    I have two favorite places in Italy. While different in flavor, they both make me feel Italian, like I belong. Pietrasanta and Ravenna are small towns with a central square wrapped with cafes and gelato shops. On my first visits to both, I realized that it only took a few hours of walking the narrow streets to feel like I really understood the towns. I knew which was my favorite place for a coffee, where the best limoncello gelato was served and where I wanted to sit to people-watch in the late afternoon, drinking a Campari and soda. I was Italian. Pietrasanta has a lovely view of the hills above the square and Roman ruins while Ravenna is full of fabulous Byzantine mosaics. Just thinking of them makes me happy. Where’s that bottle of Campari?

  • Saxon Henry

    Great post, Sonia! You made me feel as if I were lounging beside you on one of those squares (and don’t I wish I were)!

  • Susan Van Allen

    I love the way Italian places, as Sonia says, make us feel like we belong .I return in April and these posts are making me feel Italy opening her arms…Grazie!

  • Saxon Henry

    All of us will be wishing we could steal away in your suitcases!

  • Nancie Mills Pipgras

    10:00 p.m. anywhere. The day is done, the senses are stated, there is still room for another glass of something, the talk calms down to murmurs, the air is velvet.

  • Saxon Henry

    I am so there!

  • Susan Danis

    I adore the Sacred Monster Grove of Bomarzo, a splendid, mysterious garden with a giant stone head whose gaping maw contains an uvula that is a picnic table. Above the upper lip “All thoughts fly” is inscribed in Latin. Nearby a colossal split-tailed mermaid balances a magnificent urn on her head. There are wrestling giants, Janus figures, and a beautiful sphinx. The place is an incredible work of art!

  • Saxon Henry

    Wow, Susan: your power of description here is incredible. I could actually see it through my mind’s eye! I can tell you really do adore this place! Thanks so much for sharing this with us.

  • Saxon Henry

    Everyone’s comments were so great that Susan (Van Allen) is going to choose who gets the app by number lottery. I’ll post the winner on my facebook page ( and twitter @saxonhenry) at 9 a.m. Thanks so much for stopping in; I hope you’ll return. I’ll be posting regularly!

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  • Saxon Henry

    I’m glad you enjoyed reading it. There is so much great information in the book! Thanks for stopping by!


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  • Saxon Henry

    Thanks for stopping in and taking the time to comment!

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  • Saxon Henry

    Thanks for stopping in Piter. I am a professional blogger/journalist/author so this is not a hobby for me. I’m glad you think what I am producing is cool!