In April 2017 I was artist in residence at the Caetani Cultural Centre in Vernon, British Columbia. The Centre is named after Sveva Caetani (1917-1994), who was born in Italy but lived all but ten years of her life in Vernon after moving to Canada with her parents in 1921. My project, The edge of her garden, is a series of ten paintings that respond to the site of the Caetani Cultural Centre today: a 1.5 acre property on Pleasant Valley Road, its 6000 square-foot house, six outbuildings, and garden.
I was compelled by Sveva Caetani’s life story, which revolves around this particular house and garden. This space was for many years a place where Sveva Caetani had the misfortune to be imprisoned. But – later – it was also the space where Caetani chose to develop her practice and identity as an artist. At 57 years old, she moved back into the Pleasant Valley road house, where she embarked upon her major opus for the next 15 years. In its current purpose as an art centre, the space continues to support artists’ creativity. My series of paintings addressed the edges of Sveva Caetani’s garden in two senses then, as limit and constraint, but also as threshold and horizon.
Following the death of Leone Caetani, her father, in 1935, when Sveva Caetani was 17, she became a prisoner to her mother’s fear of abandonment. Ofelia Fabiani was, according to her daughter, an exceptionally reserved person who refused to speak English and was already very isolated by the time of her husband, Leone Caetani’s death. “She went into a shell with his death and never left again.” [“Ideas” with Ann Pollock, Dec. 1993, Greater Vernon Museum & Archives] The trauma of Leone’s death was very great for mother and daughter alike. “Mother was in a panic that I should be independent and leave her,” Caetani explained in 1993. [Pollock] As a result of that panic, the young Sveva was essentially forbidden to leave the family home or its grounds except to vote and, later, to deal with lawyers. For years she was not allowed to sleep in her own room, finish her schooling, hold a job, have friends or any social contact with the external world. As Caetani explained in an interview conducted the year before she died, “It was imprisonment. For the first 16 years [after my father’s death] I did not leave this house … I didn’t leave the garden.” [Pollock] In another interview, made two years prior, Vicki Gabereau asks, “Did you never escape once?” To which Sveva Caetani replies, “No. She nearly died when I was born, and she was left with a very weak heart. I was not going to abandon her.” [Gabereau] Elsewhere, Caetani described the situation this way: “She hung on to me … it’s quite easy to persuade an 18-year old that if she [her mother] does anything on her own she will have a heart attack and die.”
[Quoted in Susan Thorne, “Sveva Caetani: Celebrating the Path Taken,” Okanagan Sunday, 27 March, 1994, p 3. See also Karen Avery, “The Caetani Family in Vernon, 1921-c. 1960,” in Catherine Harding, ed. Caetani di Sermoneta: An Italian Family in Vernon, 1921-1994, p 15]
And I would expect that this persuasion was all the more possible because Caetani was grieving the death of her father, who had seemed robust and powerful until his diagnosis of cancer in the early 1930s. Without any other immediate family, the prospect of losing of a second parent must have been deeply frightening.
Sveva Caetani’s loyalty to her mother was further tested by the fact that Fabiani was adamantly opposed to her daughter’s desire to express herself creatively, through writing and painting. Eventually Caetani gave up these treasured activities in order to keep the peace. “It was like death in life,” she later said. [Avery, p 15] Deeply constrained by first, the impact of the stock market crash upon their family fortunes and, second, by the highly negative view of Italians in Canada during WWII, there seemed little option but to accept the situation. Caetani later said, ” One thinks one makes a choice but actually one is trying to answer a riddle, and that riddle is one’s life.” [Pollock] There is no doubt that Caetani found the 25 years of isolation deeply sad and frustrating. In 1990 she said, “from father’s death up until mother’s death, my life was such undiluted misery.” [“Friends of History” interview with Edna Oram, 1990, GVMA]
Caetani took refuge in the one thing she was allowed to do without censure: read. “If I hadn’t had the books to read I don’t know how I would have survived … but I had the books. I read and read and read.” [Pollock]
Because of this reading, the deeply intelligent and articulate Caetani constructed for herself a philosophy for her life [Pollock], which she would continue to refine through her engagement with some of the world’s finest thinkers, from art history to quantum physics.
That intellectual journey would eventually lead Caetani to write a 56-page letter to Stephen Hawking in 1990, in which she reflects on the relationship between time, the present, the future, and possibility, arguing for a “frontier or horizon of [an event] … futurity [is] not as a state following ‘now’, but as it actually is, viz: – the emerging edge of event itself, which I shall call hereafter the horizon or frontier of event or happening.” [Caetani, open letter to Stephen Hawking, 24 Jan. 1990, p 3, GMVA] For Caetani, a slim edge or boundary is all that separates us from the future, an edge “between one void and a reservoir of unrealized possibility.” As Daphne Marlatt observes, for Caetani, “the very concept of ‘boundary’ is only a ‘construction of possibility’.” [Reading Sveva, Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2016, p 8] When working on the series in Vernon, I was moved by the notion that Caetani had developed this perspective – which has much in common with recent feminist thinking about futurity and boundaries [see especially Elizabeth Grosz] – as a result of, or in relation to, her time of profound constraint.
When Ofelia Fabiani died in 1960, Caetani says, “life began.” [Oram]
She spent her small inheritance transforming the house, creating a warm place full of her own designs and art. She changed ceilings and floors, designed and built cabinets and book cases, and eventually divided the house into several apartments so that she could afford to keep the costly property. She had learned these skills by close observation of the workmen who were occasionally allowed into the house for repairs in the later years of her mother’s life, from reading, and from the very few servants who could be retained following the financial devastation of the Depression and WWII. A few photographs in the Caetani fonds depict servants, which inspired me to think about the ways in which employees of the family had a freedom that Sveva Caetani did not. “George”, originally from China, helped look after the house and grounds, and would have had a direct influence on Caetani’s sense of the world during these intensely withdrawn years. Sadly no part of the Caetani fonds relate the experiences of the family’s employees, not even the mysterious Mis Jüül (? -1975), who moved to Canada with the family in 1921 and remained with Sveva Caetani until her death.
After living outside Vernon from 1969-1976 for study and work, Caetani returned to the Pleasant Valley house in 1976, at which point she began a series of 56 large-scale watercolours that would occupy her as an artist for the next thirteen years. That series, Recapitulation, now owned by the Alberta for the Arts Foundation, is the subject of a major monograph by Heidi Thompson, and an insightful thesis by art historian Karen Avery. A retelling of Dante’s Inferno through the lens of her own life, Recapitulation is perhaps most remarkable for how it begins with the particular – one small family – but claims the conceptual territory of all epic, transhistorical journeys in art and literature.
My own engagement with Sveva Caetani’s legacy was focused on the space of her Pleasant Valley property in Vernon, which she – perhaps surprisingly – described in 1993 as something beloved. “I have cherished it,” she told an interviewer. “It’s home for me. A very cherished home for me.” [Oram] The greatest evidence that Sveva Caetani made peace with her complex history with her home lies, for me, in the fact that for the last few years of her life she made great efforts to have the City of Vernon accept the house and grounds as a future art centre. As a place that has welcomed visiting artists and housed local, long-term artist residents, the Caetani Cultural Centre was striking to me each day of my residency for how it fosters great possibility – especially possibility for women* – in a space that was once so synonymous with limits. Living in the house, painting each morning in a studio in the garden, and researching the Caetani fonds in the afternoons, I was fully immersed in a space of becoming that carries all the reminders of sadder days, as well as the great determination required to become an artist, and the joy of embracing the latter. Towards the end of my residency these reflections prompted me to include a self-portrait as part of the series.
In setting out to create a series of paintings based on the complex relationship between Sveva Caetani, her home, garden, and her creativity, I made use of several research resources: the Greater Vernon Museum & Archives holds the Caetani family fonds, including over 500 historic photographs related to the family’s life in Canada, and their travel to and homes in Europe, especially Italy. The textual sources are even more significant; I consulted Caetani’s childhood journals, her legal correspondence, study notes from Victoria, sketches and designs, an unpublished manuscript, and her many, superlatively-written letters to editors written between 1935-1960. The GVMA also holds almost three hours of digitized interviews with Caetani, which I had the opportunity to hear. I also spoke informally with ten people with a direct relationship to the house, grounds and/or the Caetani family, and consulted the published sources noted above.
Above all, however, I found that the house and garden themselves were crucial resources for my project. Despite numerous changes since 1960, both bear witness to the past while being very much alive in the present.
I am very grateful to the staff, residents, and artists-in-residence of the Caetani Cultural Centre who shared their knowledge and reflections with me, including Susan Brandoli, Gail and Cam Setter, Mary Kelly, Sandra DeVries, Gabrielle Strong, Angelika Jaeger. I am also grateful to Barbara Bell and Liz Ellison at the Greater Vernon Museum and Archives for their assistance with my project, and to Heidi Thompson for speaking with me about her ongoing work on the Sveva Caetani story.
* While any artist can apply to the Centre, most of the residents to date have been women.