One of the most evocative house-museum in the world, Palazzo Fortuny in Venice reopened its rooms to the public in March 2022. An atelier of wonders where, thanks to the genius of Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo and his wife Henriette Negrin, some of the objects most beautiful of the twentieth century, from the Delphos dress to the "dome" lamp, were invented.
A multi-talented genius who was at the same time a great painter, photographer, set designer, stylist, and engraver, holder of dozens of patents which, even today, are used in various sectors, from fashion to fabrics, up to lighting engineering.
Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo was born in Granada, Spain, in 1871, “son of art” as his father was the famous Catalan painter Marià Fortuny i Marsal, while his mother Cecilia was the daughter of Federico de Madrazo and grandson of Josè de Madrazo.
The Fortuny gown that Albertine wore that evening seemed to me like the tempting shadow of this invisible Venice.
(À la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust)
Orphaned of his father, he moved to Paris as a child and began to paint very early. In 1889 he settled with his family in Venice and in 1898 he opened his studio in Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei where he would then live permanently with the young stylist Henriette Negrin, whom he met in Paris in 1902, who would become his partner in crime, collaborator and, hence, wife in 1924.
Together, in Venice they will find their Garden of Eden, where the 2 curious and restless souls will feed on the Gothic whimsy, the Renaissance measure, the color and the Eastern light of the lagoon city, their constant source of inspiration together with the love for the antique and a passion for collecting.
Venice, together with the many trips, from Rome to Egypt and Morocco, therefore becomes the inspiring muse of their work which draws from the past but feeds on contemporary scientific discoveries. As a painter and photographer, Mariano is obsessed with the effect of light on things and people, and in particular with the contrasts between sun and shadow which seem to be the basis of all his inventions.
Like the Delphos dress, created on his wife’s idea in 1909 and inspired by the Ionian chiton of the Auriga, a Greek sculpture found in Delphi in 1896, for which he patents pleating, a technique that gives a wonderful iridescent light effect to the fabric. A bold and innovative design that makes it one of the most loved garments by the divas of the time such as the Marquise Luisa Casati, the first to buy it, Peggy Guggenheim, Isadora Duncan, or Eleonora Duse. So iconic, as to have been mentioned “by name” by Proust in his À la recherche du temps perdu and to have inspired Lady Mary’s clothes in the successful Downton Abbey series, giving life today, 110 years later, to a new Delpho -mania.
Another object that has made history is the dome-shaped Fortuny lamp, inspired by camera tripods, which revolutionized the world of theater (Mariano wanted to solve the problem of direct strong light that was used on stage at the time) thanks to the rays reflecting on a white umbrella, thus making the light beam softer. Today produced by Pallucco, there is no photographic set or production studio that does not have one.
In addition to these, there are many other inventions by Mariano Fortuny that today can be admired in his house museum, such as, for example, his marvelous prints on fabric (you can read their story here), the silk lamps, or the special photographic paper, which mix, in an aesthetic crescendo, with the works of the other great painters of the family, with copies of masterpieces of the past (Mariano will inherit the love for studying and copying from the greats, from Titian to Tintoretto up to Rubens), and to the works of many contemporary artists with whom he had become friends and who frequented his Venetian atelier, from Gabriele D’Annunzio to Robert Browning, from Lino Selvatico to Felice Casorati.
Mariano Fortuny dies in 1949 and his wife Henriette decides to transfer the brand rights for cottons and wallpapers to her trusted American distributor Elsie McNeill, while she will reserve for herself those for the processing of velvets and silks of which production will continue until 1952, the date on which that of clothes also ceased; an art that no one since then has been able to reproduce exactly as it was done.
In 1958 Henriette will donate the building to the Municipality of Venice, writing in the notarial deed: “the central hall on the first floor will have to retain the characteristics of what was once Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo’s favorite studio, with the works, furniture and objects that are currently there“. And so it was.
The recent restyling by Musei Civici di Venezia, of which the house museum is now part, has also reopened the artist’s private library to the public, a treasure trove of rare knowledge, while the second floor is a tribute to the behind the scenes of his creations with the reconstruction of the laboratories dedicated to the techniques of photographic development, engraving, fabric printing, etc., and the exhibition, unveiled for the first time to the public, of dozens of artifacts from the museum’s deposits.
It seems that Fortuny’s passion for the theater blossomed when he was only 12 years old, in 1883, when he was accompanied to Paris for the inauguration of the Eden Theater. A love at first sight that will lead him, in 1909, to fully sign the Parisian theater of the Countess de Béarn which will give him enormous international success.