Sveva Caetani

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Sveva Caetani (August 6, 1917 – April 28, 1994), was an Italian-Canadian artist.

Descending from the House of Caetani, Sveva Caetani represented the last of an ancient line that traces its roots back over 1,200 years and includes at least two medieval popes, Pope Gelasius II and Pope Boniface VIII, and noted politicians, cardinals, academics, artists, writers, and musicians.

She immigrated to Canada in 1921 with her father, Leone Caetani, and her mother, Ofelia Fabiani. Leone, an Italian nobleman (Prince of Teano and Duke of Sermoneta), brought his second family to Canada due to irreconcilable differences in philosophy — he was a radical socialist and the regime in Italy was fascist.[1]


Of Italian, English, French, Spanish, and Polish descent, Sveva Ersilia Giovanella Maria Fabiani was born in Rome.[2] Her father, Leone Caetani, Prince of Teano (who became 15th Duke of Sermoneta shortly after her birth), was already married, to Princess Vittoria Colonna Caetani, and would remain so until his death. Her mother was his mistress, Ofelia Fabiani, daughter of a wealthy engineer in Rome. She had one half-sibling by her father's marriage, a brother, Onorato, 16th Duke of Sermoneta, but lived with disabilities. Sveva bore her mother's surname, per Italian law, though it was changed to Caetani later in her childhood in Canada.[3][4]

Though she spent her first years at Villa Miraggio, a five-story mansion built by her father on the Janiculum Hill in Rome, her parents left Italy to settle in Canada in the town of Vernon, British Columbia in 1921.[5] There the duke purchased a late-19th-century wood house in the neighbourhood of East Hill.[6] As her father wrote to a friend about the move, "This is not an abandonment of my country and my affairs but a return to simple nature, to a primitive life, a longing for peace and rest after the torment of war and the post-war period. A spiritual rest ..."[7]

Sveva was educated by private tutors and governesses, as well as Crofton House School in Vancouver.[8][9] During the first 10 years after arriving in Canada, the Caetani family frequently commuted back and forth between Canada and Europe, largely because Ofelia "found Canadian life rather too simple for her cosmopolitan tastes ..."[10] Combining business with pleasure, the family's trips to Europe included visits to friends and relatives and stops at various real estate holdings. It was through this exceptional education that Sveva learned a love of art.[11][12]

The Duke of Sermoneta lost much of his fortune in 1929, and when he died of throat cancer in 1935, Sveva's life changed dramatically. Her mother became mentally and physically ill, and it was at this time that Ofelia Fabiani began demanding Sveva stay at home, avoiding all contact with the outside world.[13] Her mother was so distressed that she would suffer severe physical ailments, such as heart palpitations, whenever Sveva would leave.[14]

After a brief period where her mother permitted Sveva's artistic pursuits[15] Sveva was not allowed to engage in making artwork, and for the years she remained captive in the family home, books were virtually her only connection to the outside world.[16]

In 1960 her mother died, leaving Sveva to pursue both independence and her artistic pursuits. After completing her teaching degree, she served the local area as an art instructor at Lumby's Charles Bloom Secondary.[17]

"Between the years of 1975 and 1992, Caetani produced a series of 56 watercolour paintings entitled Recapitulation that recounts the story of her life. Drawing on Dante's Divine Comedy as a model for the overarching format of the series, Caetani adopts the role of a pilgrim on a spiritual journey. Just as Dante called on Virgil to act as his guide, Caetani calls on her father to accompany her on her personal journey."


  • Recapitulation, 1989


Sveva's Recapitulation series was bequeathed to the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, and her remaining paintings and her estate were donated to the City of Vernon upon her death in 1994.[18]

Sveva Caetani's image is depicted in downtown Vernon along with her family in a mural painted by Michelle Loughery.[19]


  1. ^'s father, Leone Caetani Duke of Sermoneta, was a distinguished scholar and a Socialist Deputy of the Italian parliament. In Italy between the two World Wars he sensed the growing power of Fascism and decided that Canada would provide a more liberal and healthy environment for himself, his common-law wife, Ofelia, and his daughter Sveva
  2. ^ Full birth name given in Charles Quest-Ritson, Ninfa: The Most Romantic Garden in the World (Frances Lincoln, 2009), page 31
  3. ^ Change of surname cited in Charles Quest-Ritson, Ninfa: The Most Romantic Garden in the World (Frances Lincoln, 2009), page 31
  4. ^ Change of surname cited in Marella Caracciolo Chia, The Light in Between (Pushkin Press, 2010), page 181
  5. ^ Marella Caracciolo Chia, The Light in Between (Pushkin Press, 2010), page 181
  6. ^;radSveva first arrived in Vernon, B.C. in June, 1921. Oblivious to the political and personal motivations which may have compelled her parents to leave their homeland, Sveva's childhood was one of wealth and privilege. Sheltered in their large house on Pleasant Valley Road,...
  7. ^ Quote cited in Marella Caracciolo Chia, The Light in Between (Pushkin Press, 2010), page 181
  8. ^;radSveva's childhood was one of wealth and privilege. Sheltered in their large house on Pleasant Valley Road, Sveva's early education was conducted by tutors and English governesses who lived with and accompanied the Caetani family wherever they travelled.
  9. ^ Sveva Caetani fonds.
  10. ^ Quote from Charles Quest-Ritson, Ninfa: The Most Romantic Garden in the World (Frances Lincoln, 2009), page 31
  11. ^;radIt was during the family's trip to Monte Carlo in 1929-1930, that Sveva was given private instructions in painting and drawing. Sveva shared a close and loving relationship with her father, as well as a deep intellectual bond - a love of history and literature. During her childhood, Leone encouraged Sveva to read and write, to paint, and experience life.
  12. ^ instance, while the family were vacationing in Monte Carlo in 1929, Russian artist Andre Petroff imposed a rigorous daily schedule which involved Sveva drawing from a live model and painting still lifes on canvas. In Paris, Sveva attended the Academie Ranson for six months between 1929-1930, where she was exposed to the work of Modernist painters, namely the Nabis. These important individuals were to instil in Sveva a level of artistic self-discipline and dedication that she would maintain her entire life.
  13. ^ became difficult for eighteen-year-old Sveva after the death of her father from cancer in 1934. Her mother Ofelia suffered both physically and mentally from the loss and chose a reclusive life, forcing Sveva to join her.
  14. ^ time Sveva endeavored to leave, her mother would suffer severe heart palpitations and anxiety.
  15. ^, Sveva was permitted to write and paint, producing in the 1940s a series of small paintings that were primarily religious in content, with titles such as 'Carpenter Christ' and 'Virgin Mary at the Cross'. However, Ofelia became increasingly threatened by her daughter's artistic output until she forbade it altogether. Sveva later recounted, 'in order to have peace I gave it up for fifteen years it was like death in life'.
  16. ^ was not allowed to leave the house at first, but after a time, she was allowed to walk around the garden and eventually into town for banking. Sveva was effectively housebound from 1935 until 1960 when her mother passed away.
  17. ^ was only after Ofelia's death that Sveva was free to pursue her own interests. Rejoining the community, she earned her teaching degree at the University of Victoria and went on to instruct Visual Arts at Charles Bloom Secondary School in Lumby.
  18. ^ Caetani passed away on April 24, 1994. She bequeathed the Caetani House and grounds to the City of Vernon in her Will, with the wish that they be utilized for the benefit of the residents of Vernon and the surrounding area for use in all artistic pursuits.
  19. ^ Captive Artist'--on the side of the Culos building at 3006 32nd Ave--celebrates the life of Vernon artist Sveva Caetani, who died in 1994. It was painted by world class muralist Michelle Loughery, who has also been involved with all the other city murals.

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