The fabulous Mariano Fortuny

For the height of understated flowing Classical perfection and flattering timeless allure, any discerning woman (who could afford it) would choose the Delphos, a shimmering, thinly pleated silk gown, created by Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo (1871–1949) in 1907. The simplicity of line and balanced proportions of Classical Greek art inspired this eclectic and innovative Spanish artist and designer to create the Delphos. It was directly modelled on the chiton, a tubular sheath worn by the famous Auriga of Delphi, a striking bronze statue of a charioteer dating from 474 BC.

Self-portrait, circa 1930, of the Spanish designer and artist Fortuny y Madrazo, silver gelatin on glass plate. 24cm x 18cm.

Fortuny went on to design other Greek-inspired garments, such as the Peplos dress and the Knossos shawl, whose patterns echo those of Minoan wall-paintings in Crete.

Fortuny’s designs were hugely successful among the fashionable elite of the early 20th century, and admired by intellectuals and femmes du monde alike. Celebrated actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse, and the famous Classically-inspired dancer Isadora Duncan all wore his dresses, seduced by their subtly clinging texture and liberated by the ease of movement that they allowed. Many of the heroines in Marcel Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time (1913–27) are wearing Fortuny, ‘… faithfully antique but markedly original’.

Two Delphos dresses and a green Peplos dress (centre).

Fortuny lived most of his life in Venice. He moved there in 1889, acquired a 15th-century Gothic palazzo (which is now the Fortuny Museum) and set up his studio there amidst precious and exotic works of art of different periods and provenance that he had collected: Classical sculpture, rugs, Islamic and Renaissance textiles, and paintings, some by his father and himself.

Now, on the 70th anniversary of Fortuny’s death, Palazzo Fortuny is staging an exhibition to celebrate this versatile designer and his cosmopolitan and gifted family. The Fortuny: a family story focuses on the importance of his family in his artistic education, especially the relationship with his father, Mariano Fortuny y Marsal (1838–74) a painter of repute with whom he shared a passion for collecting. For both artists, collecting was an opportunity to study and be inspired by past masterpieces.

This exhibition has borrowed objects from their collections, which have been dispersed among various museums in Europe. They include the rare Hispano-Moorish Fortuny Vase, which is burnished in metallic lustre with golden reflections, from the Hermitage in St Petersburg. It is fitted with a zoomorphic bronze base, designed by Fortuny père, who acquired the vase in Andalusia. When it was sold at auction in Paris immediately after his death it fetched a vast sum.

There is a continuity of themes between the work and the collecting mania of father and son but also with the other members of this large, vastly cultured family.

The painter’s atelier in Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei in Venice by Fortuny’s father, tempera on wood. 119cm x 132.5cm.

Among the pictures on loan, one by Fortuny Marsal shows his children in an enchanting Japanese-style room, including little Mariano busy playing with a fabric, decorated with Oriental motifs, prefiguring the shape of things to come.

The atmosphere of the Fortuny family home in Venice is perhaps best evoked by another Proustian scene – when gazing at Albertine, who is wearing a gold and blue Fortuny gown, Marcel is smitten by ‘the tempting phantom of that invisible Venice. It was overrun by Arab ornamentation, like Venice, like the Venetian palaces hidden like sultans’ wives behind a screen of perforated stone, like the bindings in the Ambrosian Library, like the columns from which the oriental birds that symbolised alternately life and death were repeated in the shimmering fabric, of an intense blue that, as my eyes drew nearer, turned into a malleable gold by those same mutations, which, before an advancing gondola, change into gleaming metal the azure of the Grand Canal. And the sleeves were lined with a cherry pink, which is so peculiarly Venetian that it is called Tiepolo pink.’ • The Fortuny: a family story is on show at the Palazzo Fortuny ( until 24 November 2019. The exhibition catalogue, in both Italian and English is published by Museo Fortuny, at €65.

TEXT: Dalu Jones
ALL IMAGES: Museo Fortuny, Venice