Family History

Sveva_Caetani_
Portrait of Sveva Caetani, taken by photographer Heidi Thompson

Sveva Caetani

The Caetani Cultural Centre (C3) is the former home of renowned Vernon artist, mentor and teacher Sveva Caetani.  Sveva Caetani was a visionary figure in the community with a deep belief in culture, education, knowledge and the importance of artistic endeavours to the well-being of society as a whole.

The Caetani house was built by Samuel Sommerville, in 1895, and is described as Late Victorian Vernacular Revival Style. It is a recognized and designated heritage building and registered with the City of Vernon. The house was purchased by Leone Caetani, Duke of Sermoneta and Prince of Teano, Italy, in 1921.

Sveva’s Artwork

In 1978 Sveva began painting her masterpiece, a series of 56 large, luminous watercolours that would recount the story of her life. Despite her failing health, she completed the series in 1989.

About Sveva and the Caetani family: (pronounced Svey-va Kye-tan-ee)

The Caetani story illuminates many issues that still resonate today: art, history, immigration, colonization, mental health, overcoming adversity, and celebrating the human creative spirit.

Descending from Italian royalty, Sveva Caetani represented the last of an ancient line that traces its roots back over 1,000 years and includes two medieval popes and noted politicians, academics, artists, writers, and musicians.

2021 marks the 100th anniversary year since the family immigrated from Italy to Canada. The patriarch, Leone Caetani, Duke of Sermoneta, and his 16 other titles, was a parliamentarian and celebrated scholar of Islam. With the rise in fascism following WWI, out of all the places in the world he had travelled, he chose Vernon, having visited the Kootenays once for bear hunting in the 1880s and writing a published account of his travels in the book, Selkirks.

Leaving Italy abruptly and under somewhat mysterious circumstances, the small family arrived on the shores of Okanagan Landing by paddlewheel with 33 trunks. There, they would live a life of wealth, privilege, travel and luxury throughout the Roaring Twenties until the economic crash of 1929 decimated their fortunes.

Following the death of Leone in 1935, the story takes an ominous and disturbing turn as the young Sveva was kept a prisoner in her own home for over 25 years by her mother, Ofelia. Both mother and daughter were devastated by Leone’s death. Ofelia, fragile both mentally and physically, chose to take her daughter into self-imposed exile, shielding her from her friends and refusing to let Sveva out of the house for many years. During this time, Ofelia also denied her daughter the simple joys of painting and creativity that she had been brought up to enjoy while her father was still alive. Sveva was left with books sent by an aunt, her father’s library, and her own thoughts.

It was not until her mother’s death in 1960 that Sveva, now in her early 40s, began to paint and draw and write once again, culminating in an explosion of creativity after so many years of suppressing her talents. Her economic circumstances dictated that she find work for the first time in her life, and she was hired to teach at St. James Elementary School in Vernon. She later attended the University of Victoria and obtained her teaching certificate, and returned to the North Okanagan, where she taught at Charles Bloom Secondary School in Lumby for several years.

Around this time, Sveva began work on what would become the penultimate achievement of her creative accomplishments, a significant series of more than 50 large-scale watercolour paintings, documenting her story and journey through life, entitled Recapitulation.

In the mid-1980s Sveva approached the Alberta Foundation for the Arts (AFA) collection with a generous offer to donate the entire Recapitulation series to the AFA collection in Edmonton with the agreement that the AFA would preserve the series adhering to archival standards for storage, presentation and display.  The AFA also provided access to the collection through exhibition loans and an online database. The collection was exhibited throughout Alberta and select public galleries in BC while in the custodianship of the AFA. Curators, historians, writers and the general public accessed the collection for a variety of projects from research to exhibitions to publishing.

The Recapitulation works were, in effect, “saved” the series from being separated and dispersed into obscurity by the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, which accepted the collection and preserved it in its entirety, as Sveva intended upon her death in 1994.

Now, after more than 30 years since the first Recapitulation painting travelled to Edmonton, the Caetani Society has brought Sveva home at last. The works have been returned permanently to the care and collection of Sveva’s namesake legacy, the Caetani Cultural Centre Society.

Sveva Caetani has served as a muse, mentor and inspiration for many different students, artists, and writers. Several books and two films have been published/released about her work and life story, with more in the works. Her iconic interviews with CBC Radio greats Vicki Gabereau and Paul Kennedy (Ideas) will be included as part of the Caetani Centre display, along with her original artwork, family artifacts and additional audio-visual material. The most recent spotlight on her work was on CBC’s Sunday Edition with Micheal Enright in January 2020.

In 1995 the book Recapitulation – A Journey by Sveva Caetani di Sermoneta was published by Heidi Thompson. Heidi spent many years with Sveva documenting her life and art. Her book is available in the Caetani Centre gift shop or through her website www.heidithompson.ca.

Additional Information

Partly in response to the rise of fascism in early 20th century Italy, this branch of the family relocated to the North Okanagan in 1921. Sveva’s father, Leone, had previously been to the area for bear hunting in the 1890s as part of a trip across North America. Leone Caetani is still recognized today as one of the most influential and knowledgeable scholars of Islam. Global circumstances and a reversal of fortunes in the financial crash of 1929 preceding the Great Depression combined to weave an intricate social legend and the property is now a beloved regional heritage site.

Recognized as a name of great significance in Italy, the Caetani family has a substantial documented political, cultural and social history stretching back to 8th century Rome, including: two medieval popes, a long line of Italian statesmen, members of the aristocracy and parliament, artists, writers, musicians, and creative individuals. The family made many scholarly and cultural contributions, and contemporary holdings include an internationally acclaimed music school in Sermoneta, Italy, the Caetani Library in Rome, and the Gardens of Ninfa (made famous in a PBS series hosted by Audrey Hepburn), among other notable endeavours.

As a young child, Sveva lived a life of wealth and privilege. Frequent excursions to Europe were a regular part of her existence, and included shopping for Chanel dresses with her mother in Paris, visits to the extensive family holdings in Italy, and trips to Monte Carlo. She took art lessons from the artist Andre Petroff. The family was frequently attended by Sveva’s governess Miss White, as well as her mother’s lifelong companion, Miss Juul, who would continue to live with Sveva until her own death in the 1970s.

Following the death of her father in 1934, Sveva Caetani’s life changed considerably. Both mother and daughter were devastated by this event. Her mother, Ofelia Fabiani, always fragile both physically and emotionally, removed the young 17 year old Sveva from her private school, Crofton House, in Vancouver and she was made to live at home in seclusion with her mother. Ofelia contrived to keep her daughter as close to her side as possible and managed to curtail almost completely any social contact and would limit Sveva’s access to the outside world for the next 25 years.

No longer allowed to engage fully in her artwork, limited mainly to reading via her father’s extensive library, Sveva Caetani essentially became a prisoner of her own home from 1934 until her mother’s death in 1960, only seen occasionally in the town when conducting her mother’s banking or business, accompanied by the diminutive Miss Juul, her mother’s companion.  Following her mother’s eventual death in 1960, she was employed as a French teacher at St. James school. She was eventually able to obtain her teaching certificate from the University of Victoria and returned to the area to teach at Charles Bloom Secondary School.

She would become a beloved teacher and mentor to many of the local youth, as well as returning to her former creative pursuits of painting, drawing and writing.

An extensive collection of over 50 large, luminous watercolours by Sveva Caetani was completed in 1989 as part of the story of her life’s journey, entitled Recapitulation, and originally was housed with the Alberta Art Foundation. Recapitulation is a symbolic interpretation of Sveva’s journey through life, accompanied by her father as her guide, and inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, examining the human condition and elements of man and his existence. The Recapitulation series was exhibited in Vancouver, Nanaimo, Ottawa, Toronto, and Edmonton.

Prior to her death in 1994, Sveva Caetani was interviewed on CBC by Vicki Gabereau and also by CBC’s iconic Ideas radio program. Sveva Caetani’s works and writings are the subject of the full-colour, 128 page book by Heidi Thompson of Coldstream Books, Sveva Caetani: Recapitulation, and two short films, Sveva: Prisoner of Vernon by Jim Elderton, and The Mystery of Sveva Caetani, by Agustin Luviano-Cordero, as well a CURA project and master’s thesis at the University of Victoria (see links below). Numerous additional academic publications and research have been conducted regarding the Caetani family in both Canada and Italy. As one of the last surviving members of the family, she received a half page obituary notice in the London Times.

The 1994 Caetani bequest gifted 1.5 acres of gardens and a 6,000 square foot historic designated heritage home to the community of Greater Vernon with the express wish that it serve as a cultural facility for artistic and critical exploration. Originally, the Caetani Cultural Centre was a part of the Vernon Public Art Gallery Society, however, it was established as a separate society in 2008. The Caetani Cultural Centre (C3) facilitates artistic expression and cultural experience by providing creative spaces to visual artists, writers, musicians, performers, cultural researchers and complementary community programming to enhance the overall cultural life of the region and to encourage, inspire and increase opportunities for the arts in the Greater Vernon community.

Visit caetani.org to learn more about our programs and upcoming events.

Additional information regarding Sveva Caetani and the Caetani Family can be found at the website of the CURA project of the University of Victoria, entitled Caetani di Sermoneta: An Italian Family in Vernon 1921 – 1994. Karen Avery completed her M.A. thesis on Sveva Caetani, entitled The Elusive Self: Storytelling and the Journey to Identity in Sveva Caetani’s Autobiographical Series “Recapitulation” and is available for viewing at the History in Art department office at the University of Victoria. Additional information may also be found at the Greater Vernon Museum and Archives, and in Okanagan History Vignettes: Sveva Caetani: A Fairy Tale Life through Copian: Connecting Canadians in Learning.

Sveva Caetani passed away on April 27, 1994. She bequeathed the Caetani House and grounds to the City of Vernon and the citizens of the North Okanagan in her Will, with the express wish that they be utilized for the benefit of the residents of Vernon and the surrounding area for use in all artistic pursuits.