Design

Silver Threads and Golden Needles

Inside the glorious, still-mysterious world of Fortuny, the Venetian textile company with a history as beguiling as the city it calls home.

Interior of Palazzo Fortuny, decked in the maestro’s hand-designed fabrics and decorated with his paintings reproducing old masterpieces.
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STROLLING ALONG VENICE’S wide southern promenade of the Zattere and peering out over the choppy vaporetto-dotted water, the island of Giudecca spreads across the Venetian Lagoon. Along the island’s waterfront stand churches (one, a Palladian masterpiece, was built to celebrate the end of the Black Plague), tiny trattorias, and a few boutique hotels. But the most curious and eye-catching building is the giant, faded-brick rectangle at its western end, a factory emblazoned at the crown with white capital letters spelling out FORTUNY. For lovers of design and Venetian history, that name possesses a near-mythic status conjuring decadent beauty and modern invention. Fortuny is Venice’s premier fabric company, begun by the genius polymath (artist, inventor, light technician, photographer, and designer) Mariano Fortuny, who built and opened the Giudecca workshop in 1922 to house his secret printing methods and specially designed machinery for producing miraculous, handcrafted damask-like patterns on bolts of white cotton.

This year, the company celebrates the centennial of that first running of its printing press with a series of backward glances and forward-looking ambitions. One hundred years may not seem like a long time in a city founded in 697, one that can claim to be the longest-lasting independent republic. But any contemporary visitor is acquainted with the fragile nature of this artistic capital — increasingly, local businesses and artisans have been pushed off the islands and onto the mainland in favor of tourist shops and cheaper, foreign goods. A majority of the city’s souvenirs — and even some of its “authentic” luxury products — are mass-produced far beyond the Veneto region. Consider this fact: Fortuny’s Giudecca compound is the only working factory left in Venice. In its way, its upholstery fabrics are as fundamentally Venetian as Murano glass.

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Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo was born in Grenada, Spain, in 1871, the son of a famous painter, whose inspirations were pulled from the faraway lands of Africa and the Middle East, and whose knack for capturing light in oil paints rivaled the talents of the Impressionists. As well-heeled bohemians, the Fortuny family bounced around Europe, settling for a long stay in Rome. It was in this artistic atmosphere, while being taught to paint and draw, that the young Mariano not only learned the techniques of capturing light and layering color, but became fascinated with the gadgets and technical equipment sprinkled around his father’s eccentric studio. (The father, meanwhile, often paraded around in exotic costumes acquired on his many travels, even photographing himself in these garbs; the fascination with playing dress-up was in the family blood.) All these early influences would eventually fuse inside of the young Mariano to engender a mind-boggling barrage of inventions and breakthroughs (during his life he patented more than 20 inventions, many of which are still in use today).

When his father died after a short, sudden illness at age 36, the family first decamped to Paris and finally, in 1889, they took up residence in a palazzo amid the dynamic artistic and social swirl of crumbling Venice. This was the era of Richard Wagner, Lord Byron, Marcel Proust, and Henry James, as well as flocks of struggling painters pouring into the city to depict its light on the Grand Canal. Fortuny’s own artistic star quickly ascended as he reached adulthood in La Serenissima, but unlike his contemporaries, he was less interested in the latest art-world manifestos and avant-garde posturing. Fortuny copied the Old Masters, eschewing trends in favor of trying to capture the eternal truths of form and line. He soon showed his work in exhibitions around Europe, and it wasn’t long before he fell under the sway of Wagner’s emotive corpus. The opera had a distinct appeal to the young bohemian; it incorporated all art forms — music, lyrics, painting, theater, song, costumes, lighting — in a single unified masterwork. This idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk fit perfectly with a precious talent who excelled in so many disparate fields.

Fortuny had the awesome technical prowess to remedy any creative limitation he encountered (all romantics owe him a debt of gratitude for inventing the dimmer switch).

In quick succession, Fortuny began painting sets, designing costumes, and while he was at it, revolutionizing the art of stage lighting. His invention of the domed stage backdrop, with lights positioned along its flank to cast an indirect reflection onto the stage, made it possible for actors to be lit no matter where they stood (previously, front stage lights were utilized and actors had to remain in a chorus line at the front to be visible to the audience). It is not hyperbolic to state that this invention radically changed theater and redefined the rules of stage performance. Like a mix of Leonardo da Vinci and an art-world MacGyver, Fortuny had the awesome technical prowess to remedy any creative limitation he encountered (all romantics owe him a debt of gratitude for inventing the dimmer switch). His standing dome lamps have gone on to become interior-design staples and are still produced to this day.

But it was Fortuny’s ongoing experimentation with fabrics that would yield his most celebrated creations. In 1906 he unveiled his “Knossos Scarf,” a thin, sumptuous silk wrap that hung over a woman’s shoulders like delicate veils in Roman statuary. Then in 1907, he created one of the most exquisite dresses of the twentieth century. At the advice of his wife, Henriette Negrin, whom he met on a trip to Paris in 1897, he took inspiration from the simple Roman tunic to create a hand-pleated silk shift dress called “Delphos.” Bucking fashionable trends, its timeless grace and exquisite tailoring (with glass-bead buttons) made it a favorite of stars like Isadora Duncan (the dress looked Jazz Age long before the Jazz Age even got started).

Fortuny’s interest in fabrics expanded, and in 1912 he installed himself on the top floor of an imposing Gothic palazzo halfway between San Marco and the Rialto Bridge. It served as his studio and laboratory. Slowly, he took over all of Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei, turning the house and its back courtyard into a full-operation factory and atelier for his alchemical fiber-and-dye experimentations. In 1975, this palazzo officially opened to the public as the Fortuny Museum. It houses the maestro’s paintings, drawings, fashion designs, and fabrics. The devastating flood in November 2019 swamped the museum’s lower level, and the palazzo had to be shuttered for three years for renovations. This past March, just in time for the centennial, the museum reopened with new exhibition spaces and remodeled displays of the artist’s studio.

When Fortuny decided to build his factory on Giudecca next to the Stucky flour mill (his friend owned it and let him acquire the adjoining property), World War I had just ended, and luxurious fabrics like silk and velvet were scarce. In another stroke of ingenuity, Fortuny developed his own secret method of printing cottons with such a hypnotic illusion of dimension and texture that it mimicked the finest velvets and silks. Thus emerged a brand-new industry of upholstery fabrics, each elaborate pattern hand designed by the artist himself. His pattern work tended toward one of three motifs — classical geometric forms, florals, and exotic designs inspired by his many travels (one favorite is called “Sphinx,” based on his journey through Egypt). Today, inside the red brick building, the 35 artisans employed by the company are still using the same block-printing machine that Fortuny invented and assembled for his top-secret process. One hundred years after he perfected the technique, not a single soul outside the factory knows the process of how Fortuny’s high-end cotton fabrics outshine velvet. The artisans running the workshop are sworn to secrecy (basically the Italian version of an NDA) and no outsider (or even nonessential factory staff) are allowed inside the building. In this Fort Knox of the fabric industry, only a maximum of 30,000 meters of fabric can be produced each year (and usually it’s closer to 20,000, because each step in the process is performed by hand). Most of those meters are still decorated with Fortuny’s original designs.


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Enter the American. In 1927, a young, ambitious interior designer named Elsie McNeil happened to be touring the Carnavalet Museum in Paris when she spotted some patterned fabric that stopped her in her tracks. It was Fortuny’s first commission, an ornate design of urns and flowers named after the museum itself. So riveted was McNeil by the sight of it that she jumped on a plane to Venice to meet its creator. From that meeting, McNeil walked away with the contract to be the exclusive distributor of Fortuny in the United States. It proved a sagacious decision on both ends — to this day, the U.S. accounts for nearly 80 percent of the brand’s sales. While promoting the fabrics in the States, McNeil ended up marrying a wealthy textile distributor. Over the next two decades she remained a close confidante of the Venice maestro, up until his death in 1949. With no heirs, Henriette, Fortuny’s bereaved widow, decided to ask McNeil to take over the business. By tragic chance, on the eve before McNeil ventured to Italy to speak about the endeavor, her own husband died in a car accident. The two widows would bond over their grief, and so began McNeil’s four-decade tenure expanding Fortuny into a leading international business. McNeil had a sharp instinct in the industry, dividing her time between the factory in Venice and the showroom in Manhattan. Like all legendary Americans in Europe, she was prone to reinvention. In Italy, she married a count and became Countess Elsie Lee Gozzi, or La Contessa. She also built a three-floor palazzina as her private lodging right inside the Giudecca compound (eventually adding a pool). And in a flourish reminiscent of that other grand American matriarch in Venice, Peggy Guggenheim, La Contessa had a fondness for small dogs (Guggenheim’s breed of choice was Lhasa Apsos; McNeil preferred Italian greyhounds). At the end of her life, she asked her trusted lawyer, Maged Riad, to take over the company reins. It is now in the hands of his two sons, Mickey and Maury.

On offer concurrently with the maestro’s original motifs, the 2022 Fortuny collection features brand-new Venice-themed designs: fabric patterns based on the waves of the Venetian Lagoon, on the moody clouds that congregate over the medieval city, and on islands around the globe that have significance to the company. Currently, there are 88 patterns in stock, and when considering the range of color variations of each pattern, there are 366 fabrics on offer. Essentially, though, each individual meter of fabric — consisting of up to 15 different “lays” of dye (think of the way watercolors mix together on paper) — is its own one-of-a-kind work of art. In all of its history, the factory only closed twice, for World War II and due to Covid-19. The great Fortuny spent that first closure locked away in his palazzo studio creating a dizzying number of patterns that couldn’t, at the time, be realized. That means the company’s archive is stocked with never-before-seen Fortuny treasures waiting for development.

But the company isn’t only subsumed with its history and past. The person largely responsible for the task of seeing the brand into the future is Venetian architect Alberto Torsello. Torsello possessed such an implicit understanding of the house that the Riad brothers asked him to serve as artistic director. Amazingly, Torsello grew up in a house right across the canal from the factory (his mother still lives there), and its giant signage served as his childhood backdrop. The celebrated local architect, who is responsible for such large-scale projects as the restoration of the Doge’s Palace and the Royal Gardens in San Marco, was commissioned to redesign the Fortuny private showroom at the front of the Giudecca compound. Torsello transformed the formerly dim-lit, musty salesroom into a sleek, light-filled theater with pull-down scrims to display the fabric samples. The new showroom opened last year.

Torsello takes a philosophical approach to the company credo. “All Fortuny productions are born from the notion of light,” he says. He sees light as the tissue that connects the intrepid theater inventions; the use of pleats in his famous dresses, which capture and hold light like the grooves in an ionic column; and, of course, the optical illusion of volume and texture in the bold fabric patterns. He defines the house’s mission as opposite from the goals of other textile companies, which aim to produce in bulk and sell as much material as possible. “The quality of our fabrics depends on time and knowledge,” he says. “Time is the real luxury — time to think, to live, to project, to create.” Torsello isn’t interested in barreling ahead with an array of quick merchandise for a hungry design market. One immediate objective is to reintroduce the brand’s beauty and history to a new audience. “Maintaining the quality and value is most important. We have a lot of work ahead.”

This September, Fortuny will launch a special centennial collection of fabrics to honor its 100-year perch on the Giudecca shores. For now, the exact nature of these patterns remains, like so much in the company, a well-guarded secret. Still, universal appreciation for this last Venice factory has never been stronger. While the fabrics are primarily used for interior decor — wall coverings, furniture upholsteries, and pillow shams — in recent years fashion brands such as Valentino and Rick Owens have incorporated the designs into their own collections. For lovers of Venice, a thriving, newly energized Fortuny spells good news for the city’s fragile artistic ecosystem. Perhaps as the fish, birds, and dolphins came back to the Grand Canal during Covid’s break in mass tourism, so too can the artisans, who, for centuries, made Venice the epicenter of the creative world. Pray to Fortuny, secular patron saint of invention and staying power.

Where to Eat, Shop, and Stay in Venice

Writer Christopher Bollen shares his top picks.

  • Grand hotels: The Gritti Palace & Hotel Danieli

    The two iconic grand dames of Venetian hotel life — The Gritti Palace and Hotel Danieli —are still the best bet for decadent, old-world hospitality, especially with historic interiors that rival the beauty of the city right outside their doors.

  • Restaurant: Arturo (near San Marco)

    No you won’t sit outside and no you won’t see a canal from its windows, but when it comes to family-style Venetian cuisine, this best-kept secret has the best table in town. Arturo is a beating heart of an upscale trattoria on the edges of San Marco, but its meats and vegetable dishes (no seafood) require a reservation.

  • Small jewel of a new museum: Palazzo Grimani, a private palace recently recreated by Toto Bergamo Rossi

    Leave it to the head of Venetian Heritage, Toto Bergamo Rossi, to resuscitate a neglected grand palace and return it to its sixteenth-century glory. Bedecked with refurbished paintings, frescos, and an extraordinary collection of Italian statuary, the museum is a fascinating look inside a private palazzo at the height of Venetian power.

  • Linen shop: Chiarastella Cattana

    Linens and fabrics are an underappreciated Venetian art, and Chiarastella Cattana has opened a shop showcasing all of the luxury and quality of fine, natural craftsmanship with modern and contemporary design. Placemats, runners, tablecloths, napkins — if you get lucky enough to be invited to a chic Venetian dinner party, there’s a good chance the linens decorating the table came from this store.

  • New hotel on the block: Il Palazzo Experimental (on the Zattere)

    The wide promenade of Dorsoduro’s Zattere is quickly becoming a hot spot for leisurely strolls and drinks at sunset. The newly opened Il Palazzo Experimental, decked out like an old palazzo in an Italian deco modernism, is at once cozy, a step away from the tourist hordes, and right in the center of things.

  • Favorite secret store: Glassworks of insects and birds by Vittorio Costantini

    The Murano glass factories are always worth a visit. But if you can’t make it out to that island, a shrine to the artistry of glass by master craftsman Vittorio Costantini stands a few blocks north of the Basilica of St. Giovanni and Paolo. Costantini makes most of the glass pieces — insects, fish, and birds — right at his work desk while his wife helms the shop. This is truly a rare Venetian art when most glass pieces are imported from factories outside of Italy.

  • Modern design gallery: Giorgio Mastinu (two locations)

    Modern design wizard Giorgio Mastinu now boasts two small showrooms right around the corner from each other catering to eccentric, highly individual, absolutely innovative art and objects from the modernist pioneers of Italy and beyond.

  • Grand hotels: The Gritti Palace & Hotel Danieli

    The two iconic grand dames of Venetian hotel life — The Gritti Palace and Hotel Danieli —are still the best bet for decadent, old-world hospitality, especially with historic interiors that rival the beauty of the city right outside their doors.

  • New hotel on the block: Il Palazzo Experimental (on the Zattere)

    The wide promenade of Dorsoduro’s Zattere is quickly becoming a hot spot for leisurely strolls and drinks at sunset. The newly opened Il Palazzo Experimental, decked out like an old palazzo in an Italian deco modernism, is at once cozy, a step away from the tourist hordes, and right in the center of things.

  • Restaurant: Arturo (near San Marco)

    No you won’t sit outside and no you won’t see a canal from its windows, but when it comes to family-style Venetian cuisine, this best-kept secret has the best table in town. Arturo is a beating heart of an upscale trattoria on the edges of San Marco, but its meats and vegetable dishes (no seafood) require a reservation.

  • Favorite secret store: Glassworks of insects and birds by Vittorio Costantini

    The Murano glass factories are always worth a visit. But if you can’t make it out to that island, a shrine to the artistry of glass by master craftsman Vittorio Costantini stands a few blocks north of the Basilica of St. Giovanni and Paolo. Costantini makes most of the glass pieces — insects, fish, and birds — right at his work desk while his wife helms the shop. This is truly a rare Venetian art when most glass pieces are imported from factories outside of Italy.

  • Small jewel of a new museum: Palazzo Grimani, a private palace recently recreated by Toto Bergamo Rossi

    Leave it to the head of Venetian Heritage, Toto Bergamo Rossi, to resuscitate a neglected grand palace and return it to its sixteenth-century glory. Bedecked with refurbished paintings, frescos, and an extraordinary collection of Italian statuary, the museum is a fascinating look inside a private palazzo at the height of Venetian power.

  • Modern design gallery: Giorgio Mastinu (two locations)

    Modern design wizard Giorgio Mastinu now boasts two small showrooms right around the corner from each other catering to eccentric, highly individual, absolutely innovative art and objects from the modernist pioneers of Italy and beyond.

  • Linen shop: Chiarastella Cattana

    Linens and fabrics are an underappreciated Venetian art, and Chiarastella Cattana has opened a shop showcasing all of the luxury and quality of fine, natural craftsmanship with modern and contemporary design. Placemats, runners, tablecloths, napkins — if you get lucky enough to be invited to a chic Venetian dinner party, there’s a good chance the linens decorating the table came from this store.


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Our Contributors

Christopher Bollen Writer

Christopher Bollen is a writer and editor based in New York City. He is the author of four novels, including his latest, “A Beautiful Crime,” a literary thriller set in Venice, Italy. He is currently the editor at large of Interview magazine and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.

Matthieu Salvaing Photographer

Passionate about people, travel, and the art of living, Matthieu Salvaing’s photography explores reportage, portraits, and lifestyle. He regularly works with luxury brands and international press titles, as well as with publishing houses, to highlight the work of artists and designers. In 2020, Rizzoli New York published a monograph on him, “Voyages Intérieurs,” which takes him to the heart of the most mythical residences he has photographed globally in recent years.

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