June 22nd, 2016
In her forthcoming book Reading Sveva (Talonbooks $17.95), Daphne Marlatt will respond to the life and paintings of Sveva Caetani, born in Rome in 1917, who came to Canada in 1921 as an Italian émigré and grew up in Vernon. When Fascism was on its rise in 1921, her parents were opposed, choosing to take refuge in the Okanagan where she was raised in a sophisticated, multilingual household, with deeply indentured European traditions. Her father Leone Caetani, an Islamic scholar, spoke twelve languages. When he died in 1935, when Sveva was seventeen, she and her invalid mother Ophelia entered a 25-year home-seclusion out of grief. It wasn’t until her mother died that Sveva re-entered the community of Vernon where she flourished with her artistic skill as a painter and a high school teacher.
Marlatt illuminates the life of a female artist and her search for belonging. Caetani’s life and art previously inspired a coffee table book, Recapitulaton: A Journey, in 1995, made possible by editor Heidi Thompson, followed by a book/exhibit edited by Catherine Harding for the Greater Vernon Museum and Archives, Caetani di Sermoneta: An Italian family in Vernon, 1921-1994, in 2003. 978-1-77201-016-9
According to the Vernon Public Library:
Sveva Caetani was born on August 6, 1917 in Rome, Italy. She was of Italian, French, English and Polish descent. Her father, Leone Caetani (1869-1935), Duke of Sermoneta and Prince of Teano, was a scholar and deputy of the Italian parliament. The Caetani family is one of the oldest in Rome, with many prominent figures in the family history, including popes, scholars, literary figures and statesmen. Leone Caetani was an Islamic scholar, and was able to speak 12 languages. Leone’s political convictions differed ideologically from those of pre-World War II Italy, contributing to the Caetani family’s move to Canada when Sveva was 3 years old in 1921. This move represented a welcome release and change for her father, but to her mother, Ophelia Fabiani (1896-1960), the freedom also meant distance from her friends and the loss of a familiar way of life. Sadly, Sveva’s father died in 1935, when she was seventeen. As an only child, Sveva spent the following 25 years in virtual isolation with her invalid mother. Sveva dedicated much of her time to reading, studying history and philosophy. When Ophelia passed away Sveva taught at St. James School, before attending the University of Victoria to obtain her teaching certificate. Returning to Vernon, Sveva taught art and social studies at Charles Bloom High School in Lumby. Sveva’s style was surrealistic watercolours, handling the difficult medium of watercolour superbly, interpreting her life in a strong but sensitive manner. Much of her works encompass the tangible and spiritual turning points of her life. Sveva’s paintings are executed in powerful, sharply defined watercolours that often resemble a technique more usually found in oils or acrylics Her style ranges between strongly allegorical and the surrealistic–the images are frequently disturbing though Sveva is equally successful in evoking a sense of tranquility and reverence. Regarding her series titled Recapitulation, she stated, “My aim is to invoke the most important experiences and feelings of my life, and to comment on them by means of images. That is why the work is called Recapitulation, or the retelling of an existence, alike personal and universal. Instead of dealing with the specific events, I sought the elements underlying my own (or anyone’s) experiences. And whatever of art, literature, science and history helps to express my ideas, I have threaded into my work.” The Recapitulation series of paintings was begun in 1978, mainly as a tribute to her idealized father Leone Caetani, and was donated to the Alberta Art Foundation. Sveva Caetani passed away on April 27, 1994.