Fortuny Madrazo, the Luminous and Cosmopolitan Mediterranean

Maria-Àngels Roque

Editor-in-Chief of Quaderns de la Mediterrània

Mariano Fortuny Madrazo (Granada, 1871 – Venecia, 1949) fue un creador genial que investigó a fondo diversas técnicas de las artes aplicadas, en las que destacó desde muy joven. Su espíritu emprendedor, influido por una educación cosmopolita y abierta, lo llevaron a crear obras innovadoras de una gran originalidad en los campos de la luminMariano Fortuny Madrazo (Granada, 1871–Venice, 1949) was a brilliant creator who researched at length diverse techniques of the applied arts, in which he excelled from a very young age. His enterprising spirit, influenced by a cosmopolitan and open education, led him to create innovative works of great originality in the fields of lighting, stage design, photography or printing. Moreover, the settings of Venice or Paris, cities where he lived, as well as the artists he often associated with from his childhood, contributed decisively to the development of his work. Important in this respect is the influence of the principle of Wagnerian total artwork, to which Fortuny remained faithful throughout his life. Thus, the artist researched and patented diverse artistic techniques that today are surprising for their boldness and conceptual depth.

Who is this man with the lively, somewhat ironic, expression, dressed in a Berber bathrobe and wearing a silk turban? It is Mariano Fortuny the Young, as he would have been called had he been born some centuries before. It is Mariano Fortuny Madrazo, a brilliant creator, a craftsman-artist who applied the canons of John Ruskin and William Morris and the total artwork of Richard Wagner; but, above all, he was a creator who captured the spirit of the Mediterranean and its aesthetic values magnified by the light through a profound understanding of its culture and a perceptive search for the latest technological innovations in the field of lighting, stage design, photography, textile printing, physics or chemistry, and who, just like Michelangelo, Tintoretto or Gaudí, invented techniques and devices to accompany the creative process that would finally give his work the result expected.

His photographic self-portrait from the late thirties is an icon in which his professional and artistic interests are admirably condensed, which gave him international recognition from his youth. There are endless literary citations of Mariano Fortuny, especially his clothes, which make him immortal. María del Mar Nicolás has recorded twenty references in the book by Marcel Proust Remembrance of Things Past.1 Other writers were seduced by his aesthetics, such as Gabriele d’Annunzio, Henri de Régnier and, after his death, L.P. Hartley, Mary McCarthy and Pere Gimferrer, the latter more Proustian than Fortunian, but always fascinated by the theatricality of the iridescent pleated silk suits with the label “Mariano Fortuny Venise”, the sheer Knossos shawls delicately printed with Cretan motifs with which Isadora Duncan, Ida Rubinstein and Martha Graham danced, the jellabahs and the velvet caftans of Eleonora Duse and Peggy Guggenheim, or the Renaissance houppelandes used by Orson Welles in his film version of Othello.

Fortuny Madrazo explains that, when he was a child, what attracted him most were the first Siemens electric production dynamos and the great exhibitions in Paris

I do not understand why many of his biographers regret that Fortuny was not sensitive to the pictorial avant-gardes that gradually emerged at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. They attribute it to the period of training in Paris with the orientalist painter friends of his parents: Meissonier, Benjamin Constant, Baudry, his uncle, the portrait painter Ricardo Madrazo… However, Mariano Fortuny Madrazo would soon show that what interested him was not painting, and much less what these artists did. He explains that, when he was a child, what attracted him most were the first Siemens electric production dynamos and the great exhibitions in Paris. I think that the person who most influenced him in his adolescence was the painter and engraver from Cantabria Rogelio de Egusquiza (1845-1915), a friend of the Fortuny family and one of the few Spaniards who personally knew Wagner. This engraver worked for Wagnerian magazines with other symbolists like Aubrey Beardsley, Jean Delvaux or Mallarmé and, possibly, introduced the young Mariano to the art of engraving and etching.

It would, however, be the work of Wagner and his ideas about musical drama as the fundamental basis to which all other arts are subordinated that would forever incline the young Fortuny towards the theatrical world and all that surrounds it, whether technical or artistic. Wagner had been related to the anarchist circles of Dresden, was a friend of Mikhail Bakunin and, following the insurrection of 1848, in which he took part, had to go into exile. In The Artwork of the Future (1850) he emphasised the libertarian spirit of his first essay, Art and Revolution (1849), and also his vision according to which the arts that developed in isolation – solitary music, solitary poetry, solitary dance – are sterile and reflect the solitude of modern man, the decadence of social instinct. For Wagner the artwork of the future would be a cooperative product, the work of the architect, the painter, the composer, the mime and the poet united in the same creative effort with the aim of achieving a triumph they pursue in common. The total artwork or Gesamtkunstwerk is, therefore, a resurrection of the ancient Greek tragedy in a new form; the revolution means the advance towards the unknown and the return of archaic forms. Wagner opposes the middle-class world and decadent culture of the time with the universe of myth, the heroes, the conquest of the purely human element and the invention of the people committed untiringly to shaping the world. For the composer, the grandeur of medieval art lies in the idea that gives life to it, like a cathedral or the Athenian Acropolis: the artists addressed the multitude and, at the same time, received their inspiration from them.

However, stage lighting was very neglected in this renewal, as noted by Egusquiza in a communication to the editor of the magazine Bayreuther Blätter, dated in Paris on 20th December 1884: “After seeing that stage lighting is as important as the decor and the dramatic situations accompanied by music, we reach the question: How is it possible to maintain antiquated and non-conventional lighting with up to date musical direction? We must not accept that lighting is the only forgotten point, that it must be partially and totally reformed. We must not forget that lighting will serve both for the visual part and the musical part of the drama. Light, like music, must be a result and the means must not be glimpsed.”

For Fortuny Madrazo, Venice embodied some of the ideals that led him to begin his artistic career. In the city of canals he saw how it was possible to capture the theoretical ideas in fashion throughout Europe

This question, and the meticulousness with which Wagner described the sky and the light in the scenes of his works, were undoubtedly a frequent theme of conversation of Egusquiza with the young Fortuny in the musical soirées they organised in the Parisian house of Mrs Cecilia Madrazo, a house that she stripped of its contents in 1889 to take the whole family to Venice. In 1890, Fortuny travelled for the first time to Bayreuth in the company of his mother and sister. He would return from this journey captivated by the Wagnerian ideal of total artwork. The second visit he made to the Wagnerian temple, in 1892, helped him to understand stage design as a key factor of musical drama.

It was in Venice where Fortuny really began his career, even though the Venice of the end of the century, when he arrived at the age of eighteen, was not the same as that of Tintoretto in the 16th century. Venice was the most precious pearl in the West that owed much to the East: a culture of particular richness in which literature, theatre, music, ceremonials and festivals combined different disciplines, as well as innumerable mechanical and applied arts that had made the lagoon city into the centre of technology and luxury industry. A great decor, a vigorous commercial emporium that, more than a frontier, was a city halfway between the East and Europe through which the most valuable and refined products passed. However, the decadent Venice of the late 19th century was also very inspiring. D’Annunzio, Rilke, Sargent, Marquise Casati, Thomas Mann, a major part of the social and artistic elite of the time were there. Fortuny immediately integrated into the new environment and discovered the Venice “replete with the magnificent East” of Proust, the jealous guardian of its Bellini, Tiziano, Tintoretto or Tiepolo, proud of its legendary decorators, weavers, dyers and silversmiths. In 1895, the first Venice Biennale opened and the city emerged once again as the capital of art.

The young Fortuny had inherited from his father, the great painter Mariano Fortuny Marsal, who in his time had surpassed the orientalists precisely because of his mastery in the treatment of light, the concern with suitable lighting of objects to instil them with mystery and life. An inheritance that could be seen in the paintings his mother had, as well as the mythical trunk with Hispanic-Morisco, oriental and Renaissance robes that in Venice, as Guillermo de Osma notes, would take on more prominence. The Palazzo Martinengo, facing the Grand Canal, where the Fortuny family settled, welcomed guests as illustrious as D’Annunzio, Paul Morand, Henri de Régnier, Zuloaga, Anglada Camarasa, Sert, Albéniz or Proust himself and, “while they are served sherry and cakes, they are proudly shown the famous collection of Mrs Cecilia’s fabrics.”2

The young Fortuny had a cosmopolitan character and knew that he could not find all he needed only in Venice, so he returned to Paris

For Fortuny Madrazo, Venice embodied some of the ideals that led him to begin his artistic career. In the city of canals he saw how it was possible to capture the theoretical ideas in fashion throughout Europe, and had the occasion to contemplate the different creations of the cultures of great Mediterranean art. In his enthusiasm for total artwork and the craftsman-artist Ruskin spoke of, Venice offered a space full of meaning through which to move towards the new, returning at the same time to the archaic forms of creation that Wagner advocated.

I believe that Mariano Fortuny must have read the book by Ruskin The Stones of Venice (1851-1853),3 a text that synthesises, based on the study of its palaces, the artistic history of Venice and contains the main formulation of Ruskinian thought, according to which the measure of the temperament of a nation is manifested in its art, in which its destiny is written. The systematic study of the Byzantine, gothic and Renaissance palaces includes some faithful drawings of the leaf motifs of the Venetian capitals, the engravings and reliefs of the stones, all impregnated with substantial reflections on art and artists. In fact, the chapter “The Nature of the Gothic” in this work by Ruskin became the bible of the Pre-Raphaelites. On Verrochio or Ghiberti, the British writer says that they had managed to bring together enough energy to unite science and invention, emotion and method, wisdom and ardour and, in terms of the importance of light and its gradation on objects, he comments: “The secret of much of the beauty of the most elevated compositions consists of creating these effects with an extreme delicacy in the gradations and the scope of the mass.”

In 1890, Mariano went to Bayreuth with his family to attend the production of The Rhine Gold. I emphasise this circumstance because it marks the moment that he returns to painting with Wagnerian themes, works influenced by Art Nouveau that he would later abandon in favour of a return to naturalism. The young Fortuny had a cosmopolitan character and knew that he could not find all he needed only in Venice, so he returned to Paris in search of lighting elements, which professionally interested him more than the decors. In 1901, he patented a system of stage lighting through indirect light, called the Fortuny System, based on and inspired by the reflection of light as it is produced in nature. It comprises a series of arc-lamps that reflect their light on emery surfaces which, in their turn, are reflected on the surface to be lit. This system has great advantages, given that, in addition to avoiding shadows and glares, it can perform some spectacular changes of light. As a complement to the new mechanism he also developed a stage design system, the Fortuny dome. Mariano Fortuny Madrazo also worked with renowned companies, such as the German AEG, with which he would form a partnership. With these means he was able to carry out an important theatrical renewal in Europe.

The mocking perspective that Fortuny adopted of Venice in his self-portrait perhaps corresponds to the year 1937, when he had the opportunity to apply his lighting system to the great exhibition of Tintoretto in the lagoon city: his lamp of indirect and diffused light lit the rooms of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Fortuny would use this illumination again for the pictorial cycle of Carpaccio in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. How many visits he made to these artists, and how many photographs he took of the details of their works, of their colours! His design with Venetian Renaissance motifs inspired by the masters Carpaccio, Bellini and Tiziano, as Ruskin recommended, would bring him world fame.

For this reason I believe that, when it is said that Fortuny was impermeable to schools and trends, it is forgotten that he followed a highly coherent evolution and it was his innovations in the field of stage design and lighting, in printing and the treatment of fabrics, which inclined him to those arts in which he could shine. Fortuny Madrazo worked with D’Annunzio, Appia, Diaghilev, the main figures of the performing arts world of the Belle Époque. At the end of the 19th century and during the first decade of the 20th, symbolist art dominated internationally. In that era, the resurgence of orientalism in western culture came from Russian Byzantium and was established thanks to the success of the Russian Ballets that Sergei Diaghilev took to Paris in 1909, and which caused real artistic commotion both because of the choreography of Marius Petipa and the artistic direction of the painter Leon Bakst. Bakst’s vision for the decor of Scheherazade comes from the theme of Salomé, by Gustave Moreau.

Fortuny, very familiar with the medium and convinced of the indivisible unity of the theatrical performance, for a long time studied the visual quality of the fabrics under the spotlights, paying special attention to the changes of colour, the chiaroscuro effects, the impression of relief and, at the same time, of lightness. Therefore, we can say that he was not unaware of the evolution of the trends but at the same time he knew very well what work he wanted to create, as he was very familiar with the art that had been produced for centuries in the Mediterranean. It should be kept in mind that the rapid dissemination of Art Nouveau in Europe coincided with an aesthetic change originated by a certain decline of symbolism in painting and sculpture, a weakening that did not affect his appreciation of the decorative arts, which would survive in art deco and rationalism. In 1903, Gustav Klimt was impressed by the Byzantine mosaics in the churches of Ravenna; in this respect, it is worth noting that Klimt’s highly special work did not only represent a balance between naturalism and stylisation, but also between the fine arts and crafts.

Art Nouveau was not a style, but a movement that evolved in a diverse way with the only aim of changing the established order in the fine arts and applied arts

The Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei would initially be a workshop and also the definitive residence of Mariano Fortuny Madrazo and his wife, the model Henriette Nigrin, who he met in Paris in early 1900. Henriette knew perfectly well how to interpret Fortuny’s desires, and became in her turn a craftswoman; from 1907 both would devote themselves to experimenting with velvets, silks, metal oxides and dyes from Brazil, India, Mexico or China. Fortuny controlled the whole creative process in the design of the pieces, from the choice and production of fabrics of the highest quality to the preparation of the dyes, which would always be natural. The artist applied the colour as if it were a pictorial work, assigning a priority role to the printing process. The decorations embrace almost all styles: classical, Coptic, Renaissance, Persian and Maghrebian motifs, and also those generated by the art of his time, whether Art Nouveau or deco. The Delphos dress, presented in 1909, evokes Classical Greece, in keeping with what other artists painted at the time, such as Alma-Tadema or Burne-Jones; Fortuny, however, would make it a reality, as it would not be worn only by women from the theatre world, but also the ladies of the aristocracy and refined middle classes. In fact, many of the naturalist paintings with a touch of Catalan Noucentisme that Fortuny painted of his wife helped him to show, just like the photographs taken of different models for magazines like Vogue, the majestic effect of the Knossos shawls and the Delphos dresses, an exuberant interpretation in Chinese or Japanese silk of the Greek chitons. Fortuny revolutionised the world of dress with the development of diverse techniques of silk pleats that imitate the Greek statuary art, while working on printing using the patterns of oriental fabrics. These precious materials, taken from old or exotic designs, would dress the most elegant people of Europe: let us recall those draped layers in which we find recreations of designs of bathrobes and jellabahs, the result of his knowledge and of various journeys through the lands of Islam. His stamp can also be seen in contemporary artists such as Issey Miyake, Roberto Cavalli or the Moroccan designer Tami Tazi.

The Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei was similar, to some extent, to the Red Lion Square of William Morris, where furniture, embroidered upholstery fabrics, papers, glass windows and other examples of applied arts by the Pre-Raphaelite Arts and Crafts creators were produced. Alastair Duncan says4 that Art Nouveau owes much to William Morris, who fought to revitalise arts and crafts and the applied arts at a time when mass production was beginning to grow. The primordial objective of this movement, which the designers of art deco and the rationalists of the twenties and thirties would later champion, is to equate the decorative arts with the rest of the arts, as “there is no better art, only better or worse artists.” The leitmotiv of Mariano Fortuny’s production was to transform any creation into a work of art.

The poet Pere Gimferrer rightly says when speaking of Fortuny that “the applied arts were the first to acquire a prominent role here: there is no hierarchy because, as in Gaudí’s architecture, each element of the whole is displaced to a foreground of identical aesthetic meaning.”5 We must agree that Art Nouveau was not a style, but a movement that evolved in a diverse way in different countries, with the only aim of changing the established order in the fine arts and applied arts, which is why is engenders figures as disparate as the Scottish architect Mackintosh and the Catalan Gaudí.

Antoni Gaudí is the most admired architect of the 20th century, a creator who worked in stone, iron, glass and wood, famous above all for his exuberance and for the originality of his forms, although less known for the rationality of his structures. A sharp observer of nature, Gaudí sought technical and geometric elements that he then applied to his work, such as the paraboloids, helicoids or conoids. He repeated again and again that to be original means returning to the origin, to that origin that resides in nature, the destination point, according to him, of all sciences and arts. And as Daniel Giralt-Miracle says, he was not only a great admirer of the natural environment but a convinced Mediterranean, an artist who firmly believed that we possess an aesthetic vision of life and that we have the obligation to transmit it to our works, to our environment, to our habitat.

A sharp observer of nature, Gaudí sought technical and geometric elements that he then applied to his work, such as the paraboloids, helicoids or conoids

Throughout his life, Gaudí came to formulate a theory about the Mediterranean, expressed in brief phrases that correspond to some clear ideas, the product of a prolonged impregnation. His thesis was based on the conception of the Mediterranean Sea as a middle point, a point of balance between earth and sky: “Its shores of intermediate light at 45 degrees, which is what best defines bodies and shows their form, is the place where the great artistic cultures have flourished, owing to this balance of light: neither too much nor too little, because both are blinding and the blind do not see”. However, this interpretation does not get lost in poetic or nostalgic ramblings, but gives him a practical vision of the world that leads him to say: “In the Mediterranean the concrete vision of things prevails, that in which authentic art rests. Our visual strength is the balance between feeling and logic.”6

Fortuny also studied nature to create his indirect light lamp. The light, its path and capacity for illumination are decisive factors in stressing what one wants to show, as Ruskin explained when speaking of the Mediterranean painters. Morocco and its light meant that his father, Mariano Fortuny Marsal (born in Reus, Tarragona, like Gaudí), formed part of orientalist painting from an independent position, which shifted between Romanticism and naturalism. Despite the anti-naturalist dramaturgy of his works, the artist painted the Mediterranean light, not that which dazzles tourists but that which penetrates gently in the interiors to be reflected in a million ways, in a subtle chromaticism, on the objects. Fortuny Madrazo, in contrast, was not an orientalist at all; he was a cosmopolitan who used his knowledge and the Venetian vantage point, assimilating the distinct orients of his aesthetics and the emotions he sought to transmit. Just as Gaudí proclaimed, he appeared as a pragmatic man, convinced of the technological advances applied to the fields of art, which he never renounced.

Therefore, we can say that as well as the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts, Mariano Fortuny felt linked to the ideology advocated by the German schools, less opposed to the use of machines. For example, together with the traditional and Japanese techniques, he used new printing techniques such as serigraphy and photographic printing; the application of a gelatine or emulsion which sets in the light and becomes impermeable to water allowed him to produce much larger pieces. This is all explained in the patents he deposited regularly in Paris. Moreover, he started the semi-industrial and mass production of pieces that despite this do not lose their category as artistic objects.

In terms of design, I would like to stress that the textile research carried out by Fortuny in the Mediterranean area showed him that the Coptic influence of Christian Egypt is a constant in the designs of the Byzantines and, through them, the Muslim textiles and their cultural radius, which the artist assimilated masterfully in traditional works of Islamic art, specifically in designs of Hispanic-Muslim fabrics. Some decorative themes of Sassanid art are characteristic of his designs such as the tree of life, which grows from a spring. This motif, which developed deep roots in Byzantine and Islamic art, spread throughout the Mediterranean basin and reached the Sicilian workshops, where it became very popular. Fortuny would take his Sassanid designs from the textile documents of some medieval workshops in Palermo and Lucca. Apart from the Venetian Renaissance fabrics, another source of inspiration for the Spanish artist would be the Muslim fabrics with inscriptions on arabesques. The delicacy of the gradations of colour on the arabesques and the leaf motifs that Fortuny would include in the design of silks and velvets are, in certain aspects, like the Mozarabic decoration of the Byzantine palaces of Venice that Ruskin drew and Proust evoked: “The Fortuny gown which Albertine was wearing that evening seemed to me the tempting phantom of that invisible Venice. It swarmed with Arabic ornaments, like the Venetian palaces hidden like sultanas behind a screen of pierced stone, like the bindings in the Ambrosian library, like the columns from which the Oriental birds that symbolised alternatively life and death were repeated in the mirror of the fabric, of an intense blue which, as my gaze extended over it, was changed into a malleable gold, by those same transmutations which, before the advancing gondolas, change into flaming 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.”7

Fortuny Madrazo did not close himself into the isolationist Mediterraneanism so prevalent in his time

Despite everything, Fortuny Madrazo did not close himself into the isolationist Mediterraneanism so prevalent in his time; as the Arabist François Pouillon says, “the Europe of Charles V is redrawn with this artist, from Spain, where his roots lay, until Germany, where he felt passionately attracted by Wagnerian works.”8 From timeless Venice, Mariano Fortuny crosses the years of lead of the hard ideologies and the world wars.

Fortuny turned his home, the gothic Venetian palace of the Orfei, into the best intercultural decor that could be found in Europe at the turn of the century. His photographic archive is immense and of great interest, as the two exhibitions held in the Fortuny Museum in 2004 and 2005 show well. “Fortuny’s eye”,9 curated by Silvio Fuso and Giorgio Molinari, exhibited above all pictures of Venetian interiors and exteriors (1902-1908), which included the curious photograph entitled The Sphinx, dated 1903 and probably taken in Paris, where the gesture and look of the model transmit a better achieved secret power of seduction, in terms of expressivity, than the paintings of most symbolists. The exhibition “Journey to Egypt”10, for its part, presented a selection of pictures of the journey to Egypt made by the artist and Henriette in 1938, where we again see Fortuny’s communicative skill. Some years before, they had been in Greece, faithful to their vocation of further expanding the knowledge of the civilisations that had influenced the construction of a European culture. The artist actively worked on this construction until his death, in 1949, always uniting the cultural tradition of the diverse countries and civilisations with a commitment to modernity and, above all, creativity.

In 2003, through a deed of assignment as payment of taxes by the textile firm Inditex, the Spanish state bought the collection of the Austrian Liselotte Höhs, who had acquired a great many pieces by Fortuny since the fifties, when Henriette had to sell her collection to various institutions and private individuals to cover debts generated by the Orfei museum house. This purchase was a good decision and recognition, albeit late, by the Spanish state. The collection comprises four hundred and seventy pieces, which include original works by Fortuny Madrazo, who were always considered Spanish, as well as some clothes and fabrics from diverse periods and origins, also the property of the artist. Today, these pieces are in the Museo del Traje de Madrid.


[1] Nicolás, M. del M., Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo. Entre la modernidad y la tradición, Madrid, Fundación Universitaria Española, 2001.

[2] Osma, G. de, Mariano Fortuny: his life and work, London, Aurum Press, 1980.

[3] The Stones of Venice, a work by Ruskin in three volumes, has been the object of numerous editions in the original English version. See, for instance, that published by DaCapo Press, 2003.

[4] In his famous treatise on Art Nouveau. See Duncan, A., Art Nouveau, London, Thames & Hudson, 1994.

[5] Various Authors, El Fortuny de Venecia, catalogue of the exhibition under the same name held at the Museu Tèxtil i de la Indumentària de Barcelona, Ajuntament de Barcelona, 1984.

[6] Giralt-Miracle, D., “Gaudí, Miró i Dalí, unes arrels profundes”, in M. À. Roque (ed.), Estètica i valors mediterranis a Catalunya: visions de la història i la cultura catalanes a través de la Mediterrània, Barcelona, Edicions Proa, 2001.

[7] Proust, M., Remembrance of Things Past, vol. VI, “The Captive”, translated from French byC. K. Scott Moncrieff, web edition published by eBooks@Adelaine; available at

[8] Pouillon, F., “Un prince de la Renaissance dans la Venise du xxème siècle”, in “Venise porte de l’Orient”, Qantara: Magazine des Cultures Arabe et Méditerranéenne, no. 61, October 2006.

[9] Various Authors, L’occhio di Fortuny. Panorama, ritratti e altre visioni, exhibition catalogue. Venice, Marsilio Editori – Musei Civici Veneziani, 2005.

[10 ] Fuso, S., Mariano Fortuny. Viaggio in Egitto; Appunti fotografici d’artista, exhibition catalogue. Venice, Palazzo Fortuny – Musei Civici Veneziani, 2004.