She was a woman renowned for her beauty, celebrated for her gorgeous soprano voice, painted by Boldini and Muller-Ury, featured in several silent films and herself portrayed in film by her fellow Italian, Gina Lollobrigida. However, Italian opera singer Lina Cavalieri is probably best remembered as the inspiration for Piero Fornasetti’s “Variations and Themes.”
Born on Christmas Day, 1874, in Viterbo, Latium, Natalina Cavalieri was orphaned at 15 and sent to live in a Catholic orphanage. She chaffed under the strict supervision of the nuns, and soon ran away to join a theatre troupe. In Paris, she sang in cafes, all the while training as an operatic soprano. Her lovely voice, and even more beautiful face, opened many doors for her, and she sang with Enrique Caruso in Fedora. She travelled the world as an opera singer, living and loving with equal fervor as she married and divorced three times. The most photographed woman of her time, she retired to open a cosmetic salon and write a magazine column and a book devoted to beauty secrets. During the Great War, she was a silent film actress in the United States, returning to Italy after the war to live with her fourth husband near Florence She worked as a nurse during World War II, until her death in 1944.
Her beauty was extolled throughout her life, but nowhere was it celebrated so thoroughly and so uniquely than in the series of 350 plates created by Milanese artist Piero Fornasetti, and entitled “Variations and Themes.” Though Fornasetti no doubt saw photos of the singer-her photogenic face and figure was a favorite of the press-his inspiration was an engraved newspaper illustration that evoked her as a classical beauty in the Greek or Roman style. He reproduced that one engraving in decoupage on a plate, then transformed it in hundreds of ways: Cavalieri with a veil, Cavalieri winking at the viewer; looking out through netting, sipping from a cup, split in half, shattered. Each new creation seemed to inspire ten more, in a witty, yet romantic fashion, never self-conscious or ironic.
In “Variations and Themes,” classical beauty is reborn and made modern.
Fornasetti is famous for bringing an artistic approach to the everyday object. In his hands, simple screens, umbrella stands, wallpaper, blinds, dishes all become canvas or sculpting media for his unique vision.