29 June, 2006

35. Mariano Fortuny

This wonderfully private little courtyard is the 'backyard' of the Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei in San Marco, which was the home and studio for many years of one of Venice's most acclaimed 20th century artists, Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo. Although not a native Venetian, being born in Granada, Spain, Fortuny came to Venice when he was 18 and stayed, moving in to this Palazzo ten years later in 1899.

Fortuny was, among other things, a talented painter, sculptor, photographer, architect, theatre designer, inventor – a modern Renaissance man – but his fame rests mostly on his unique fabric designs. In 1907, when he was in his mid-thirties, and inspired by his muse and then new bride, Henriette Negrin, Fortuny began designing simple garments based on drapery from classical Greek sculpture. These were so good at complementing the female body in motion, they were soon admired and collected by dancers such as Isadora Duncan. It was quite probably a long and flowing Fortuny 'Knossos' scarf that Duncan was wearing which caught in the spokes of the wheels of her Bugatti and strangled her.

Encouraged by his success with the women of the 'beau monde', Fortuny developed secret new processes for printing exquisitely beautiful fabrics with transparent dies, so that his very colourful classical-looking designs were durable yet each one was an individual work of art, and in 1919 he set up a factory in a former convent on Giudecca to make textiles.

In 1927, an American interior decorator, Elsie McNeill, saw some of Fortuny's fabrics in Paris and came to Venice to meet the artist himself, where she convinced him of the commercial potential in his designs, which she then distributed from her business in Madison Avenue, New York.

When Fortuny died in 1949, Henriette persuaded Elsie to take over the running of the textile business, which she did with great success. Fortuny's factory on Giudecca is still going today, and the fabrics are still made with the same still secret processes, to the same high standards.

Unfortunately, the factory is off-limits to tourists – like Coca-Cola's secret formula and Kentucky Fried Chicken's secret herbs and spices, an important part of Fortuny's marketing still depends on the secret ingredients remaining secret – but Fortuny's old home is not. Palazzo Pesaro is now better known as the Museo Fortuny.

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