A Fashion Designer’s Palace

The reopening of Fortuny Museum gives an immersive insight into Venice’ maybe most eclectic Spaniard – the light engineer, painter and fashion designer Mariano Fortuny

The Museo Fortuny reopened its doors as a permanent exhibition venue on the 9th of March 2022, two years after the ‘Acqua Granda’ flooding seriously damaged the Palazzo. It is open to the public again following essential conservation work on the ground floor, and the refurbishment of the upper floors, showcasing personal items, works and and parts of the art collection of maybe the most versatile Spaniard who ever lived in Venice. 

The Fortuny Museum is housed in the Venetian Gothic Palazzo Pesaro Orfei in Venice. It contains work by Fortuny in the fields of textile design, fashion design, painting, sculpture, photography and lighting, and also a number of paintings by his father Mariano Fortuny y Marsal.

Museo Fortuny / Museo Fortuny, photo by courtesy of the author

He can be called a “renaissance man”, but living in the Fin de siècle, the end of the 19th century, when showing personality of a successful “jack of all trades” was more common than now, but still rare.

Mariano was born the son of the Spanish painter Marià Fortuny and his wife Cecilia de Madrazo (1846-1942), who also came from a family of painters. After his father died in 1874, the family moved to Paris, where his grandfather Federico de Madrazo y Kuntz lived as a painter. Mariano Fortuny showed talent and studied from 1876 to 1885 first with James Tissot, then with Paul Baudry, Emmanuel Frémiet, Giovanni Boldini, Alfred Stevens and Jean-Léon Gérôme

Mariano Fortuny, photo by courtesy of Reunuion des Musees Nationaux

In 1892, after seeing some of Richard Wagner’s work in Paris, Fortuny traveled to Bayreuth, Germany where Wagner had built a theater specifically designed to put on his operas. He was mesmerized by Wagner’s work and began to paint scenes for his operas when he returned to Venice. In Wagnerian drama, painting, architecture, song, dance, and poetry all worked together towards a common goal (the famous Wagnerian “Gesamtkunstwerk”). This affected Fortuny’s own vision and was the inspiration for a brand new type of theater design where the designer and the technician would work together on a project from idea to realisation. 

Through his experiences with Wagner and the theatre, Fortuny became a lighting engineer, architect, inventor, director, and set designer. As a set designer, he wanted to create a more seamless way of transitioning from one scene to another other than flying out a backdrop and bringing in a new one. He began experimenting with light and different ways to do this in the attic of his palazzo in Italy. With his experimentation, he found that reflecting light off different surfaces could change the color, intensity and other properties of light. 

Mariano Fortuny, painting in the cycle "Wagner", oil on canvas, photo by courtesy of the author

In 1889 the family settled in Venice in the Palazzo Martinengo. There Fortuny exhibited his father’s works as well as his own in the large gallery. His mother had also assembled an extensive collection of fabrics there, including velvet, brocade, silk, taffeta and satin from Venice, Ghent and the Orient. The special color tones and combinations of the gold and silver interwoven fabrics covered with foliage or floral designs and their production aroused Fortuny’s curiosity. In 1892 he bought the Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei (today: Palazzo Fortuny) on Campo San Beneto, which he made the center of his work and which Fortuny filled with the artwork of his father, art that his father collected, and other art and artefacts that inspired him. He called the palazzo his “think tank” where he had many rooms set up for experiments and inventions as well as rooms for inspiration. In He set up a painting and photo studio, a carpenter’s workshop, a fabric printing and dyeing workshop, and a tailor’s shop, where he employed a dozen women workers.

Mariano Fortuny, dresses & shawl designs, photo by courtesy of the author

Working with his French wife Henriette Negrin (1877–1965), an expert in natural dyes, Fortuny invented new methods of textile dyeing of printing on fabrics and tapestries. Fortuny drew from styles of the past for his fashion design as well, inspired by the light, airy clothing of Greek women that clung to the body and accentuated the natural curves and shape of a woman’s body – in his times considered scandalous. These delicate and light creations were e.g. praised by the greatest German poet of the time, Hugo von Hofmannsthal at the occasion of a presentation in Berlin. Typical of the Delphos dress and the Knossos shawl is the wafer-thin, permanently pleated silk satin, whose production Fortuny patented in Paris in 1909. He successfully designed this type of dress as early as 1905. In addition to his workshop in San Marco, the company Società Anonima Fortuny was founded in 1919, a silk fabric printing works on the island of Giudecca.

In 1911, Fortuny exhibited his fabrics at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in the Louvre, to a great response. In 1915 he became Deputy Honorary Consul of Spain in Venice. Shortly thereafter he opened a boutique in Paris, and later branches in London, Madrid and, in 1929, New York City where his models were sold. In the 1920s and 1930s his clients included Sarah Bernhardt, Luisa Casati, Isadora Duncan, Eleonora Duse and in the United States Lillian Gish, Martha Graham and Ruth St. Denis.

Clarisse Coudert in a dress designed by Mariano Fortuny, photo from "Woman as decoration" (2006) by Burbank, Emily (Public Domain)

As an interior designer, he furnished Consuelo Vanderbilt’s house in Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles, as well as the salons of Marie-Laure de Noailles and Dina Galli and the gaming room of the new Hotel Excelsior in Paris.

As an inventor, Fortuny applied for more than fifty patents, had been working on indirect lighting effects in theaters since the turn of the century (Fortuny GmbH AEG Berlin), designed theater backdrops and costumes and was also represented as a painter at all Venice Biennales up to 1942.

Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo died of a heart attack and was buried in the Campo Verano cemetery in Rome – but his spirit and taste stays palpable in Venice.

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Peter Muttcoin
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