What was Sveva Caetani?
(Cura Project wall statement by Karen Avery, Fall 2003.)
Sveva Ersilia Giovanella Maria Caetani was born in Rome on August 6, 1917, into one of the oldest and most illustrious families in Roman history.
Her father, Leone Caetani, Duke of Sermoneta and Prince of Teano, was a renowned scholar of Islam and served in the Italian parliament until the growing threat of fascism in Italy forced him to relocate to Canada in 1921.
Sveva’s mother, Ofelia Fabiani, of Spanish, French, and Italian descent, was the daughter of a wealthy Roman engineer.
Sveva spent the first four years of her life in her mother’s villa in Rome.
In the summer of 1921, Leone, Ofelia and four-year-old Sveva stepped off the train in Vernon, along with a cook, a valet, a secretary and 30 pieces of luggage.
After purchasing a home on Pleasant Valley Road that satisfied Ofelia’s taste, Leone invested in an orchard and woodlot in the BX region northeast of the city.
Shortly after the Caetani family had settled in Vernon they began what would become a decade of traveling back and forth to Europe to visit the family estates in Italy.
As was the tradition of her aristocratic class, Sveva was educated at home by a series of English governesses until she was sixteen.
Sveva demonstrated an acute artistic talent that was supported by her father, as demonstrated in a letter he wrote to her, ‘All other things that we enjoy in life (love included!) turn to bitterness, but a great work and devotion to art are joys that never leave or betray you’.
While the family was in Europe, Leone hired prominent artists to instruct Sveva in the rudiments of drawing and painting.
For instance, while the family were vacationing in Monte Carlo in 1929, Russian artist Andre Petroff imposed a rigorous daily schedule which involved Sveva drawing from a live model and painting still lifes on canvas.
In Paris, Sveva attended the Academie Ranson for six months between 1929-1930, where she was exposed to the work of Modernist painters, namely the Nabis.
These important individuals were to instil in Sveva a level of artistic self-discipline and dedication that she would maintain her entire life.
The foundation of the family was shaken in 1935 when Sveva’s father passed away.
Ofelia was both literally and figuratively heart broken by Leone’s death and she used the resulting heart condition to persuade her daughter to spend the next twenty-five years in isolation with her.
Initially, Sveva was permitted to write and paint, producing in the 1940’s a series of small paintings that were primarily religious in content, with titles such as ‘Carpenter Christ’ and ‘Virgin Mary at the Cross’.
However, Ofelia became increasingly threatened by her daughter’s artistic output until she forbade it altogether.
Sveva later recounted, ‘in order to have peace I gave it up for fifteen years it was like death in life’.
In 1960, after many years of suffering, Ofelia passed away and Sveva was free once again to express herself creatively.
While attending the University of Victoria in 1971 to obtain her B.C. teaching certificate, Sveva was encouraged by her professor John Cawood to apply herself seriously to her art.
On her return to Vernon, Sveva was hired by Charles Bloom Secondary School in Lumby to teach art and Social Studies.
Teaching and making Art became Sveva’s primary concerns, and she threw herself into them whole-heartedly.
While working a full day at school, Sveva would also devote herself to producing an unprecedented amount of watercolours outside school hours.
While driving to work one morning in 1975, Sveva was struck with an idea that would consume her for the next fourteen years.
She conceived of a project that would recount the story of her life, with the figure of her father playing a major role.
Drawing on Dante’s Divine Comedy as a model for the overarching format, an outline began to formulate in her mind.
She would call the series Recapitulation.
By 1983, it was clear that Sveva could not continue teaching because of her ill health and she was forced to retire.
Sveva would spend the next seven years deeply engrossed in producing the fifty-six paintings for Recapitulation, despite her failing health.
With the help of her friend Vanessa Alexander, the Alberta Art Foundation in Edmonton agreed to provide a home for Recapitulation, even before the series was complete.
The foundation generously covered the cost of framing each and every work as it arrived.
By 1989 when the final work for the series had been completed, Sveva had exhibited in many solo and group exhibitions, including Expo 86 in Vancouver.
Wheelchair bound and with arthritis-gnarled fingers, Sveva completed her last painting in 1992-93.
In 1993, Heidi Thompson approached her about publishing a book on Recapitulation.
Sveva agreed to the project but, unfortunately, was not able to see it published.
On the morning of April 28th, 1994, Sveva passed away peacefully, leaving the world to ponder the deep complexities of the legacy she left behind.
WHO WAS REALLY SVEVA CAETANI?
As a response to this challenge, Victoria director Agustin Luviano-Cordero (“A Portrait of Myfanwy Pavelic”) made the “ art-in-itself” film “The Mystery of Sveva Caetani ” 56 min. (2012) where we find out not what Sveva Caetani was but who she really was and why she still is one of Canada’s Art best kept secrets.
The film director will be in attendance
to introduce the film and for a Q&A period
WHEN: Monday, October 29, 2012
WHERE: MOVIE MONDAY
Eric Martin Pavilion Auditorium
Royal Jubilee Hospital, Fort St. entrance
TIME: 6:30 PM
COST: Admission is free or by donation.