The fascinating mystery of the great artist Sveva Caetani

The fascinating mystery of the great artist Sveva Caetani (1917-1994) and her friendship with Vanessa Alexander (1936-2014). Written by Pietro Vitelli
For some years, at least since 2018, Sveva Caetani has been keeping me company. In truth, the character, Sveva Caetani has intrigued me for almost half a century since as administrator of the Province of Latina, in the company of the then-president Severino Del Balzo, in 1976, I had the opportunity to visit the Gardens of Ninfa and meet Mr. Hubert Howard. I met Mr. Howard on other occasions in the company of Riccardo Cerocchi, president of the International Music Campus of which I supported the relaunch with definitive affirmation at that time. Riccardo Cerocchi was also President of the Roffredo Caetani Foundation from 1987-1997. In my initial encounter with Mr. Howard, I had the opportunity to observe the elegant and reserved figure of Lelia Caetani, wife of Mr. Howard and daughter of Roffredo, last duke of Sermoneta and cousin to Sveva, daughter of Leone Caetani who had been the 15th Duke of the Caetani House.
Lelia, awoke curiosity and restlessness in me knowing of her artistic proclivity and the drama of a Great House which was concluding its centuries-old history. At that time, Lelia was considered the last descendant of the Caetani of Sermoneta. I have always been a lover of history and began to take an interest in the history of the family and particularly of the last Caetani of Sermoneta. So, very soon, I came across both Leone Caetani and his daughter Sveva who lived in Canada, a large boundless country that in a few years I would have occasion to travel there, even becoming a member of the AICW (Association of Italian Canadian Writers).
In the years that followed, I immediately realized that, after Lelia died on January 11, 1977, in England, her cousin Sveva, became the last direct descendant of the Caetani Dukes from Sermoneta. My love for history, with some particular attention to the history of the area closest to me and my more frequent visits to Canada, encouraged me to initiate Sveva’s biography and gradually research her status since I remained fascinated by it. So at a certain point, I felt an urgent need to go and visit the city and places where Sveva lived for almost her entire life, namely the town of Vernon and its surroundings in the Okanagan Valley.
Vernon is about four hundred and forty km. northeast of Vancouver in British Columbia. It was not difficult to become aware of how much Sveva Caetani was a figure of great historical importance, at an intellectual high level, and of how she experienced infinite joys and sorrows during her lifetime while living in a territorial microcosm. She was brought up and educated to have an open mind and inclined to discern human history in its entire complexity. Sveva studied human history in its multiple and complicated directions including the field of scientific research and even the most advanced scientific discoveries and inventions. Also, she followed the traces and teachings of Leone Caetani her father, a man of vast culture, a civilly committed intellectual and a historian of undisputed tenure. Her father, even today, is a fundamental reference for all scholars of the history of Islam.
Particularly, I realized how the whole secular history of the Caetani of Sermoneta was concentrated in the biography of Sveva and her vision of the world.
My recent biography of Sveva, “Sveva Caetani, Il Viaggio nell’anima dell’ultima dei Caetani di Sermoneta”, published by the Roffredo Caetani Foundation in June 2020, was born out of my fascination of Sveva’s life and my attempt to discover Sveva’s persona. My book contains a biography as well as a discussion of Sveva’s intellectual and artistic talents. It also includes testimonials of Sveva’s close friends with whom I had the opportunity to become well-acquainted. These fundamental testimonials of people well connected to Sveva can now only be read in her above quoted biography.
Sveva, as is extensively described in the book, lived practically a segregated life in the large Caetani house in Vernon for twenty-five years without much personal contact with the outside world.
That is still haunting me. It is a fascinating mystery to understand how Sveva could have become such a great personality, an artist of quality, a refined intellectual, even a philosopher and scientist. The evidence is in her correspondence with Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawkings and other great physicists. Everything can still be investigated by making a gift to the history of Canadian and Italian culture. It can be achieved based on the numerous existing documents and still unpublished writings by Sveva, by visiting and researching the vast family archives well preserved in Vernon in the GVMA (Great Vernon Museum & Archives). particularly boxes containing Sveva’scorrespondence and her unpublished writings such as those concerning philosophy as well as correspondence, of Leone, Ofelia Fabiani’s mother of Sveva and that of Miss Ingrid Marie Kristina Juul, their secretary, collaborator and friend until Miss Juul’s death in 1973. Sveva lived in isolation for twenty-five years. Yet this woman, who was born in Rome, from the age of 43 until she died in Vernon on April 27, 1994, at the age of 77, lived a long life in a small town in the Canadian hinterland, managed to make great friends and relationships with important intellectuals, and common people alike. Above all, she became an excellent painter with refined and absolute personal valuable techniques. Moreover, she becomes an exemplary, innovative teacher, teacher to many students, some of whom became well-known and important artists. Some of her pupils and later friends could perhaps still be traced to provide testimonials capable of revealing the depth of Sveva’s personality. In addition to those with whom, I have been able to relate. They left me reminiscing about her personality with a taste of grandeur and mystery.
Sveva will remain in the history of Pictorial Canadian Art I think, because of her masterpiece, which she called “Recapitulation”, a series of 56 watercolours, which are spread in the style of watercolours, but with a completely personal technique that still amazes connoisseurs. The collection is still preserved, at The Albert Foundation for the Arts, (AFA), in Edmonton, AB, Canada, (Known as The Albert Art Foundation) when Sveva was alive. Other works of Sveva can be found at the Caetani Center in Vernon and the VPAG (Vernon Public Art Gallery). Others are found in private homes collections of families whose members were Sveva’s friends or admirers. Presently there is no catalogue of her works. Only scholars in Canada could attempt to carry out a complete cataloging assembly of Sveva’s works. The conservation in a single body, is at the AFA in Edmonton, of the Recapitulation series, is a great fortune because otherwise these masterpieces, like other works by Sveva, would have risked being dispersed since the Caetani family in Canada had no heirs. Fortunately, Sveva, in her will left everything in her possession, at the time of her death to the Vernon Community. In her will, she appointed her friends as executors of the will with very specific instructions.
While writing this article recently, I received news from Canada that the AFA (The Albert Foundation for the Arts) has agreed with the Caetani Centre in Vernon and the Vernon Museum, to permanently keep the entire Recapitulation series in Vernon and house it together in one unit under one roof, that once belonged to the Caetani. Sveva also, left in her will that the house is dedicated to the Vernon community. I am convinced that this fact will constitute an impulse for a renewed interest in the pictorial works of Sveva and her biography. It is also to be hoped that the Caetani Foundations in Italy will finally decide to join forces with the Vernon Museum so that Sveva’s artistic merit to history, can become an event to be realized even in Italy since Sveva has always dreamed that it could happen.
The conservation of the entire Recapitulation series is due to a great friend of Sveva: Vanessa Alexander. In my aforementioned biography of Sveva, I make a quick mention to Vanessa who deserves this great merit. Unfortunately, in all the numerous texts published in Canada, which I have reviewed, only a brief mention of Vanessa is registered. But, when I visited the Vernon Archives, where all the documents of the Caetani are carefully preserved, I was unaware of the lasting friendship between Vanessa and Sveva, although aware, despite the few elements I had at the time, of the importance of Vanessa in making Sveva’s artistic work known. I think that their friendship created a fundamental contribution to preserve Sveva’s pictorial masterpieces, in a unique residence and its public domain. It is most likely that in the collection dedicated to the Caetani Centre in the Vernon Archives, there are documents related to Vanessa Alexander.
Today, however, I have the privilege to introduce and discuss some biographical details about Vanessa Alexander and her relationship with Sveva Caetani. Luckily for me, Vanessa’s daughter, Andrea Sehmel, was kind enough to contact me, having heard of my publication of Sveva’s biography. Andrea Sehmel lived briefly in Vernon in 1967, when she and Vanessa met Sveva, Joan Heriot and Miss Juul. In our exchange of correspondence, I was able to learn about important news relating to Vanessa Alexander which allowed me to expand my knowledge of Sveva’s world, her character, her behaviour, her feelings, and her identity.
Denise Vanessa Varenne Alexander was born in Leeds, Yorkshire, England on January 13, 1936, to Jessie “Cherrie” Cooper Gaunt and Roger Leon Georges Varenne. Then her mother was remarried to Harold Ramsay . During World War II, Vanessa and her family moved to Edinburgh, Scotland. In 1952 Vanessa, with her mother Jessie Cherrie Cooper Ramsay, a theatrical artist, and her stepfather Harold Ramsay, a composer and conductor, moved to Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Vanessa from the age of three performed on stage with her birth father and mother. Around 1955 Vanessa was just nineteen, married Noel Lax and moved to Victoria with her husband. Vanessa sang in the lead soprano role of “The Messiah” directed by her stepfather Harold Ramsay. Following in her mother’s footsteps, she continued to perform in theatrical and musical performances in Victoria and Calgary. She and her first husband had three children: Marc, Jonathan and Andrea. Leaving Victoria in 1967, Vanessa and her daughter Andrea lived for a short period in Vernon and through friends, Lillian and Myra deBeck who lived next to Sveva met and made friends with Sveva Caetani. Myra is probably the friend who gave Sveva and Miss Jüül her own home in Victoria, without any remuneration, during Sveva’s period of study in the capital city of British Columbia, to obtain her university degree that definitively and officially enabled Sveva to teach. Myra favoured the meeting, thinking that Vanessa and her mother had something in common with Sveva. And in fact, this began an intense relationship of friendship between Sveva and Vanessa which continued for the following 27 years until Sveva’s death.
Ronny deBeck, Myra’s grandson, fondly remembers Sveva. He could be an interesting witness to the life of the great Italian Canadian artist. Among other things, he owns paintings made by Sveva.
As the relationship between Sveva and Vanessa deepened, so much so that, as Andrea Sehmel testifies, Sveva called Vanessa Alexander affectionately with nicknames, “Van or Vannozza”, calling her, in the Italian style, her First Daughter. This reveals interesting aspects of Sveva’s character, feelings, and habits. The dramatic events of her years, from 18 to 43, probably prevented Sveva from marrying and perhaps having children. Also, as the only daughter of her father Leone and her mother Ofelia including many details of her biography, makes me believe that the maternal instincts were rather developed in Sveva. We know, and it was evident that Sveva, strongly poured out her feelings on her numerous occasions to students or younger friends that she frequently encountered with a touch of caring love. Over the years those pupils and friends have genuinely reciprocated Sveva in their affections. The same sentiments were poured out by Sveva on her numerous diverse watercolours which, symbolically, she considered to be her children. She spoke about these feelings herself on many occasions. Sveva’s sentimental life, both in the family and in any other type of relationship between people, is a mystery that, so far, has not been thoroughly investigated. These attributes and characteristics are part of her hidden mysteries secretly cherished within the depths of her soul and were unwillingly exposed. It would be useful to have a thorough investigation of her writings and correspondence and discover other testimonials. Those mysteries surrounding Sveva tended to increase when one considers that she ordered in her will that two boxes containing her documents and her family’s private papers should be burned upon her death. Elements of this mystery are also encountered when reading the long correspondence between Sveva and her uncle, Roffredo Caetani. The role of Vanessa Alexander in Sveva’s biography is fundamental to outline her feelings of a long and deep friendship that bound them to the point of developing a solid permanent relationship. Perhaps also due to the great age difference of almost twenty years between them. The maternal feelings in Sveva towards Vanessa were so deep that their friendly relationship was publicly talked about at Vanessa’s obituary in 2014, which also mentioned Vanessa’s significant role in the realization of Sveva’s exhibitions and her work to help their realization.
After their short stay in Vernon, Vanessa and her daughter returned to Calgary where they had family and friends. In Calgary, Vanessa, after the conclusion of her first marriage, again met her high-school friend, Robert Keith Alexander , an internationally-known golfer, financial investment analyst and politician. They married in 1970. Vanessa and Keith in 1972 gave Andrea her younger sister Jenny, a ballet dancer with the American Ballet Theater, who was killed in a car accident in 2007. Vanessa and her husband Keith Alexander remained united until their deaths in November 2014. She was not only an actress and singer but also an appreciated sportswoman as a basketball player in high school and later years, as an avid golfer. Vanessa’s ultimate years were difficult and painful, so much so that she had to be admitted to the Chinook Hospice probably due to the heavy shock suffered by a series of mournful family events, starting with the death of her son Jonathan and then of her beloved sister Jenny and another son, Robert. Keith died the day after Vanessa’s passing.
Vanessa and Keith Alexander shared a deep love born out of spontaneous feelings and care for each other. Also, they lived well together and many friends and admirers attended the sad ceremony of their funerals.
Andrea Sehmel recalls that Sveva was very generous with the family of Vanessa Alexander’s family, to which Sveva was a devoted friend. Sveva, held Keith Alexander, particularly, in high esteem, appreciating all his professional, cultural, political qualities, including his stoic character, his slim physique, and his temperament of a quiet, intelligent and able man, capable of giving decisive actions for the preservation of the Recapitulation series in Edmonton. Sveva was very fond of Keith for the realization that he had been able to build a new happy life for Vanessa after the failure of her first marriage, which Sveva followed with apprehension during her meetings with Vanessa. This fact also testifies to Sveva’s character of open-mindedness, capable of being in tune with the feelings of those with whom she related, and the solidarity and moral help that Sveva was able to give, cleverly to her friends. We learned that in all those years, from the beginning of the friendship in 1967, the Alexander family, visited Sveva Caetani many summers until her death.
Andrea Sehmel, daughter of Vanessa, did years of research on Leone, Sveva and the Caetani dynasty. During these searches, and based on a parish certificate concerning her grandfather which she had received from her mother Vanessa, Andrea was able to find the connection of several of her cousins scattered in Australia, Scotland and Belgium. The Belgian cousin wrote an essay showing that an ancestor of Vanessa was called Marco Aurelio Zani de Ferranti. The Scottish cousin after genealogical research was able to ascertain that this de Ferranti originated from Bologna with ancestors in that city since the year 880 and that in 1990 one of the de Ferranti linked to Vanessa Alexander married a member of the English family of the Lindsays, counts of Crawford, Sveva’s cousins.
I can understand Andrea Sehmel’s emotion in discovering common distant relationships in Europe with Sveva Caetani. Sveva was an aunt-like figure for Andrea during her whole life. Andrea also knew Miss Juul, Sveva’s lifelong companion, as well as her dear friend, Joan Heriot, Sveva’s cohabitant and collaborator, well. Andrea and her family visited Sveva’s home in Vernon on Pleasant Valley Road several times. Sveva always treated them with respect and encouraged them to explore their imagination and creativity. Sveva was bold, funny and happy. Andrea says that she is very proud to have met her and says she loved the cadence of her deep voice. She still misses her today. Who knows how much else there is in Andrea Sehmel’s notes regarding her research on Leone, Sveva and the Caetani.
This recent news tells us how many surprising ribbons and connections exist in the stories of families both of great historical importance such as the House of the Caetani and common families that from cities or small villages of origin yet unknown, have scattered throughout the world. And it is understandable how the most discerning people who currently live in countries very far from those of their origins or the origins of their ancestors are in love, curious about their family histories and family trees. But from the family and ‘friends’ relationships, of which I have spoken so far, it also emerges how silly it is, not to understand that in this world we should walk together, have friendly relationships, brotherly love, consideration between individuals, ethnic groups, or other peoples. It would be an extraordinary wealth for individuals and everyone, and to be interactive with the whole humanity as a whole.
Sveva’s friendship, with almost maternal feelings, with Vanessa Alexander; Vanessa’s marriage to Keith Alexander who had strong ties to the Alberta government, and Sveva’s subsequent relationship with Keith was decisive in protecting the Recapitulation, Sveva’s masterpiece. Being able to keep it in its entirety in a unique place allows to visit, taste, criticize, analyze to understand it better and to sense the connections between Sveva’s intellectual and artistic world and its creative derivation from the poetic structure and vision of the world from the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. This unified collection also allowed the publication of Sveva’s posthumous book “Recapitulation, A Journey” by Sveva Caetani with the decisive contribution of her friend Heidi Thompson, coauthor of the book and photographer of all the watercolours that make up the series.
Andrea Sehmel owns four works by Sveva as well as a Louis Vuitton wardrobe trunk dating back to 1929 that belonged to the Caetani family of Vernon; photos of Gelasio Caetani when he was Ambassador of Italy to Washington in 1925; of Cora Caetani wife of Michelangelo Caetani, uncle of Sveva; of Mr. Tin Ng, director of the Edmonton Museum who decided to acquire the Recapitulation series; a letter from Tin Ng to Vanessa Alexander in which among other things there’s a mention of the role played by Keith Alexander; a letter from Sveva to Vanessa Alexander; Rudyard Kipling’s poem “IF” given in 1926 to Sveva with a handwritten dedication from one of her governesses, Miss Dorothy Wallwork; a letter from Sveva to Vanessa dated June 9, 1987; another letter from Sveva to Vanessa dated April 23, 1991, which testifies to their long and deep friendship; and two handwritten notes of Sveva with an indication of her works to be assigned to Vanessa after her death.
It seems to me that there were important elements in the friendship between Sveva and Vanessa that deepen the biography and character of the same Sveva Caetani.
Our journey is now ended, Dear Sveva Caetani and my memory is departing with a quote of The Immortal Bard saying…
“Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say goodnight till it be morrow. ”.

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Frank Spezzano
Frank Spezzano
16 days ago

The story of Sveva Caetani takes the reader on a journey of her internal soul. A woman who overcomes suffering, and emerges conquering life on her own terms. Sveva is an impressive character who became an outstanding artist. Thanks to Pietro Vitelli who renders her… as a portrait of her times.

Frank Spezzano,

Greater Vancouver Community Credit UnionGreater Vancouver Community Credit UnionGreater Vancouver Community Credit Union

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