Fortuny, the damask elegance illuminates Venice

Teresa Scarale
Teresa Scarale
Read Time: 3'
A factory born of the genius and inventiveness of a man never fed up with the world and beauty, Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo. The Venetian light, so beloved in Canaletto. One hundred years since the first fabric in 2022. The entrepreneurial and creative aegis of the young Riad brothers, New Yorkers with Egyptian sensibilities, ideal and concrete heirs of a history made up of multiculturalism, which in the Lagoon bloomed
First of all: it's Fortùny, with the accent on u. Mariano Fortuny y Mandrazo (Granada, 1871 - Venice, 1949) was an eclectic, enthusiastic, transversal man who chose Venice and Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei (now the Fortuny Museum) as his home. Devoted to painting (especially as a copyist) and music, he was also an inventor, photographer, dress designer celebrated by Marcel Proust, designer of lamps and objects, and set designer (his was the Fortuny Dome, an iron and canvas structure to reflect light in the theater). He moved to Venice in 1889, at age 18, and made it his home of choice. He founded the famous Fortuny textile factory in 1921 at Giudecca, next to the Molino Stucky, in what is still the company's headquarters, a red brick building with large windows overlooking the canal and a hidden garden inside.
The company's birth was due to a 1902 meeting in Paris with fashion designer Henriette Negrin, who would become his wife and muse. With this elegant and sophisticated French woman, in 1906 Mariano Fortuny began creating the first printed fabrics with motifs inspired by classical antiquity. Today, that company is more alive than ever, after several generational transitions based on intellectual and cultural affinity and not genetics (the Fortunys had no children). It is run economically and creatively by New York brothers Maury (CEO) and Mickey Riad (creative director), having been entrusted with it by their father, Maged, in 1998. Maged Riad, a lawyer, had bought it in 1988 at the insistence of New York designer Elsie McNeill (Countess Gozzi), his client, who in turn had acquired it from Henriette Negrin.

Mickey and Maury Riad, Creative Director and CEO of Fortuny Venice 1921 - 036. Photo by Alessandra Chemollo, like the one in the opening

We can admire the fabrics live in the showroom, like wings on a stage, in a sort of theatrical set-up presented by the artistic director of Fortuny Venezia 1921, the "Venetian-born" architect Alberto Torsello, already working on the architectural restoration of the Doge's Palace, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, and the Scuola Grande della Misericordia. The fabrics that drop from the ceiling have all the appearance of damask silks and brocades: but they are 100 percent cotton. The finest kind, which has its own natural iridescence, they explain. Thanks to a purely artistic process, using machinery invented by Mariano himself a century ago and still in use, they obtain fabrics that look like damask.

In 1922 they were industrial machinery: today, they are considered artisanal. "When the cotton rolls arrive at the company, they are treated as canvases on which watercolors will be painted. As happens with that technique, there are spots where the color struggles to dry, producing the characteristic shading," Torsello says.

Even the colors: think of the distinctive Fortuny green-are made from the natural ingredients and ancient formulas Mariano and Henriette created together. The patterns printed on the fabrics are almost aquatic, as in Carla Accardi's ante litteram paintings. They recall the twinkling of Venetian canals, the re-lights of that light so dear to Canaletto or the masters of Murano glass.
Fortuny Palace interior

What is the role of great heritage, of wealth - to quote ourselves - in all this? In the Giudecca garden, Maury Riad answers us that "today Mariano Fortuny Venezia 1921 would not exist as a company without the support of wealth. We are necessary for this to continue. This company is significant to us, and those who work here deeply appreciate us for that. We mix art and business: it is a very delicate balance; we try to maintain it. If you focus too much on business, art suffers; conversely, if you only think about creativity and the arts, you risk depleting those resources that sustain the art. The history of humanity tells of how wealth has meant patronage and how it has been able to capitalize on the talent of artists. I would go so far as to say that the rich are the real influencers. They make the taste, the standards. Of design, of travel, of fashion, of luxury. Of culture in general. Very often - though not always - flows from the top down."

Emblematic of this "difficult" but successful balance is the recent reopening to the public of Palazzo Fortuny, or Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei, after two years of conservation work and refitting. The event marks the beginning of the collaboration between the museum and the factory, to support and "contaminate" each other. Until September 2023, the calendar is already crammed with educational activities and lectures (as many as seven of them dedicated to light, a cornerstone of Mariano's research) because, as Mariacristina Gribaudi, president of the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, declares, "the future exists only if we can study our memory."
Photo Teresa Scarale

And memory, the Riads respect it. They almost revere it. Palazzo Fortuny is for Maury Riad "an almost spiritual place, full of soul (soul), stories, culture." The Riads' relationship with Fortuny began in 1971 before Maury and Micky were born. Within two years, the Riad lawyer became the trusted confidant of Elsie McNeill, who, over the years, managed to convince him (this was 1988) to buy the weaving mill. In 1998, at 22 and 23, his sons took the helm of the business. "We resurrected the sleeping giant," says Maury. "The museum represents everything Mariano Fortuny did. We represent what he is still doing. Together, we will discover all that Mariano Fortuny will do. But the future is not just a matter of production; it is a matter of knowledge and learning. We pay great attention to the transposition, transfer, and growth of knowledge. It is not just about preserving the art of craft, but about understanding our humanity more deeply through art and craft."
Fabrics with a literary flavor
"...robes or robes .... made by Fortuny from ancient Venetian designs. Is it perhaps their historical character, or rather the fact that each one is unique, that gives them such a singular character that the attitude of the woman wearing it, as she waits for us or talks to us, acquires an extraordinary importance, as if that dress represented the fruit of long deliberation and that conversation detached itself from ordinary life like a scene from a novel? (...) Today's clothes do not have as much character, except for Fortuny's." (Marcel Proust, from Albertine Prisoner, La Recherche du Temps perdu

Mariano Fortuny's deconstructed cloak-dress is celebrated in the pages of Marcel Proust's La Recherche. Today on view at the Fortuny Museum in Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei, Venice. Photo © Teresa Scarale
Editor-in-chief of Pleasure Assets. A professional journalist from Gargano, she holds a degree in Economic and Social Disciplines from Bocconi University in Milan. She writes about finance, economics, art, and luxury markets. Teresa has been part of We Wealth since its founding.


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