The legend of Mariano Fortuny still lives today among the fascinating secrets of the fabrics he invented, famous for being the most mysterious and refined in the world.
Born in Spain in 1871 into a family of artists, his curious and multitalented genius led him to undertake various arts and crafts: he was an engraver, sculptor, scenographer, photographer, designer, painter, and successful inventor. His immense talent is easily captured in the extreme modernity of his creations, pursued by his love for performing and visual arts. He revolutionized the theater scene, by inventing the dome lighting system adopted by Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1921; the interior design world, through his iconic fabrics; lighting, through his invention of the dimmer switch, theories on indirect light and his lamps, and, above all, the textile and fashion art.
In 1889 Fortuny moved to Venice, and was joined in 1902 by Henriette, his beloved, lifetime muse. Together, they transformed their home into an “artists’ salon”, whilst taking an increasing interest in the creations of fabrics. In 1906 they invented the original Fortuny Pleating, followed in 1907 by the legendary Delphos dress. Inspired by ancient Greece, it became the favorite among the divas of that time: from Eleonora Duse to Marchesa Casati, from Isadora Duncan to Peggy Guggenheim.
The modern and revolutionary Fortuny fabrics became famous all over the world: Marcel Proust mentioned them in his masterpiece “In Search of Lost Time” and his friend Gabriele D’Annunzio called the artist “the alchemist dyer” in his works. Fortuny, in fact, invented special techniques for printing color and metallic inks on fabrics that could achieve the effect of either brocade, velvet, or tapestries, whilst retaining features of extraordinary lightness and durability.
Following its growing success, in 1921, Fortuny relocated his textile production to the island of Giudecca, a former convent that was closed during the time of Napoleon. In 1949, after the death of the artist, his wife Henriette encouraged Elsie McNeill Lee, the exclusive distributor of Fortuny’s fabrics in the US, better known as Contessa Gozzi following her marriage to Count Alvise Gozzi, to take over the business, as well as the full artistic heritage of Mariano Fortuny. After his death, according to Henriette’s will, the production of dresses ceased completely; an art that no one has been able to reproduce, despite the numerous imitations.
In the late ’50s, Contessa Gozzi undertook the restoration of the magnificent garden of the Giudecca manufactory, turning it into one of the most beautiful of Venice included in the book “A guide to the gardens of Venice” by Mariagrazia Dammicco, embellishing a few years later by the construction of a scenic swimming pool. In 1988 she named her successor, Maged F. Riad, a trusted confidant, and since 1994, after the Countess’s death, the Riad family has been pursuing the brand’s legacy with faithful dedication.
To enter the world of Mariano Fortuny, first visit his former home-atelier, Palazzo Orfei, now the Fortuny Museum part of the Venetian Musei Civici, and then book a private tour of the historic factory in the Giudecca island. Here you will be able to explore the beautiful garden, recently enriched by the plants that have inspired some of Fortuny’s most famous decorations, such as wisteria and ivy. In the factory store, besides the beautiful fabrics, you can also find fab design items such as the notebooks by Barbieri artistic bindery or the delightful little creatures by NY artist Ann Wood.
Fortuny’s collection of textiles and home accessories are still made today with the exact secret ingredients and techniques that the artist invented, using the same machinery that he personally installed in the historic factory, still one of the most mysterious places in the world. In fact, only the owners of the company and a few employees are allowed in, in order to preserve the well-kept secrets of Fortuny’s printing process. Now as it was then, the company’s motto is “Always beautiful never the same“: every piece of fabric, in fact, is a work of art, unique in terms of color and resemblance, which, like all the truly precious objects, is thought to be handed down from generation to generation.