“Variation is not only a noble endeavour or a musical exercise, but also an intellectual tradition and virtuosity of the imagination,”
said Giò Ponti, Italian architect and designer, and close friend of Piero Fornasetti, the man whose obsession with the face of soprano Lina Cavalieri, his theme, led to more than 350 variations on plates, glasses, paperweights and candlesticks.
Lina Cavalieri, who was known as “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World” – played by Gina Lollobrigida in the 1955 film La donna più bella del mondo – was indeed a beautiful woman, as Giovanni Boldini’s portrait, and numerous photos, show. The Italian writer and poet, Gabriele D’Annunzio, wrote that she was able “to create with her art, a rare harmony between her physical beauty and the passion of her voice”.
Fornasetti first saw her face in a nineteenth-century French magazine. He was bewitched. Starting in 1952, he transformed Cavalieri’s face “as he wished”. She became more than a motif in his work; she was more of a muse.
Cavalieri’s stage début was as Nedda in I Pagliacci in Lisbon in 1900. Five years later she was singing in Fedora with Enrico Caruso in Paris, which they then look to the Metropolitan Opera a year later. She sang at the Met for the next two seasons, and sung with Caruso again Manon Lescaut in 1907. Her repertoire included La bohème, La traviata, Faust, Manon, Andrea Chénier, Thaïs, Giulietta in Les contes d’Hoffmann, Rigoletto, Adriana Lecouvreur, Salomé in Hérodiade, Carmen and Tosca:
Although she was justly famous as an opera singer, her renown was amplified by her beauty which led to hundreds of photographic portraits, and women trying to obtain her figure with tightlaced corsets.
Piero Fornasetti said that Lina Cavalieri’s face was an archetype – a quintessentially beautiful and classic image, like a Greek statue, enigmatic like the Gioconda and therefore able to take shape into the idea that was slowly building in his mind. It was this formal, graphic appeal, rather than her great celebrity, that demanded such loyalty and inspired his spontaneous and ceaseless creativity.
The uniting principle behind all of Fornasetti’s volcanic creativity is that of collecting. The collector knows the objects he collects inside out, and is able to notice variations that most people would never see. Variations on a theme is a process that characterises much of Fornasetti’s work. His constantly variable recurring themes include suns and hands, but it is his Theme & Variations series featuring Cavalieri’s face that is the true expression of this process. It is no coincidence that this has become a true icon of Fornasetti’s work.
Fornasetti hung 300 Theme & Variations plates in the toilet of his gallery on Via Montenapoleone in Milan.
Piero Fornasetti – 100 Years of Practical Madness, an exhibition at Milan’s Triennale to mark the one hundredth anniversary of Fornasetti’s birth, runs until 9 February.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.