Who’s that girl?


It’s Lina Cavalieri, the opera singer whose face inspired Italian designer Piero Fornasetti to create more than 500 artworks.

Her face gazes out from the plates: a masked bandit, a sphinx, a cow-eyed Charlie Chaplin. In one, only her lips are visible, while in another a lone eye peeps out through a keyhole. Still, there’s no disguising the fact that every single one of 500-plus artworks by Milanese artist Piero Fornasetti features the same girl. But who is she?

It turns out that, during her lifetime, there was little mystery; the face belongs to Italian opera singer Lina Cavalieri, famed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the “the most beautiful woman in the world”. And she was far more than just a pretty face.

At 15, Cavalieri was sent to live in an orphanage from which she escaped with a touring theatrical group. She went on to perform across Europe, launched a range of beauty products (including a perfume called Mona Lina), became a silent- lm actress, and worked as a volunteer nurse during WWII. In 1944, Cavalieri and her fourth husband were killed during an Allied bombing raid while trying to rescue her valuable jewellery from their home.

It was eight years later, in 1952, that Fornasetti stumbled across her portrait in the pages of a magazine. Fascinated by her face, he began creating artworks featuring Cavalieri in various guises, and by 1966 the series of plates adorned with her face – which he called Tema e Variazioni (Theme and Variations) – numbered 299. Following Fornasetti’s death in 1988, his son Barnaba continued the work and today there are close to 400 renditions of Cavalieri’s face on plates, and hundreds more on everything from candles to wallpaper and furniture.

In celebration of her legacy with Fornasetti, a limited-edition art book, Tema e Variazioni: The First Series, was released last month during Milan Design Week.

Comments are closed.