Natalina “Lina” Cavalieri


Her repeated face is the muse behind one of the most recognisable prints in interior design.

Lina Cavalieri (1874 – 1944) was an Italian opera singer, actress and monologist. Taking her as a muse and as a motif, many artists would return to Lina Cavalieri’s face again and again throughout their career.

The famous Italian artist Piero Fornasetti found the iconic face of Lina as he leafed through a 19th century French magazine and became fascinated with her.  The archetypal classic female features and enigmatic expression of Lina Cavalieri became Fornasetti’s most frequently used template, and upon which he based more than 350 variations.

Piero Fornasetti considered Lina Cavalieri’s face as another archetype – a quintessentially beautiful and classic image, like a Greek statue, enigmatic like the “Gioconda” and therefore able to take shape into the idea that was slowly building in his mind.  For him, this face became the ultimate enduring motif. With great modesty all these works were reproduced on a series of everyday objects like the plates he created.

Piero Fornasetti

Much of Lina’s early life has been romanticised including accounts of time spent as an orphan in a convent from which she allegedly ran away with a travelling theatre troupe! In fact she was never orphaned as a child, but it was a hard life none-the-less. As the eldest of five children she was expected to help raise her siblings, and, as soon as she was old enough, to work to supplement the family income. She was sent to train as a seamstress, but lacking the talent or inclination for that profession turned instead to selling flowers in the streets of Rome and singing in front of rich houses.

A local music teacher heard her singing in this way and offered her a few free music lessons, which led in turn to Lina finding work in the cafe chantant (musical open air cafes) of Rome. Her pretty voice brought her immediate success in her new role and before long her considerable beauty caught the attention of a young army lieutenant who promised her a better life away from all her past tribulations – but his influential family intervened to break up their relationship by arranging his transfer to another City.

In 1897 she found herself for the first time in England, singing the songs of her homeland at London’s reknowned Empire Theatre. From there she went St. Petersburg in Russia, creating a sensation which cause that country to take her forever to it’s heart and be the scene of some of her greatest successes.

Her career then took a sudden change in direction. In Paris she had met, and fallen in love with, Prince Alexander Baratinski, scion of a rich Russian family and young man about town. Baratinski eventually convinced Lina that she was wasting herself on the music hall stage and that her true future lay in grand opera. Consequently, she retired from variety and the music halls and began cultivating her voice under the tuition of Madame Marchesi in Paris and later Madame Mariani-Masi in Milan.

In 1905 Lina sang at the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre alongside the great tenor Enrico Caruso, and the following year accompanied him to New York where she spent the next two years singing with the Metropolitan Opera, afterwards touring in recitals. Whilst in New York she was engaged to sing at a Venetian Festa given by Mrs. Benjamin Guiness in honour of her good friend, the Duchess of Sutherland. The Duchess was much taken with the charming songbird who invited her, on her return to Europe, to be an honoured guest at a reception at the Sutherland’s home in London. Even at the height of her success, however, her past was not easily forgotten. At the Duchess of Sutherland’s reception she was formally introduced to Princess Vittoria di Teano from her homeland, causing that lady, much embarrassed, to immediately leave the house remarking that she was “not accustomed to meeting such persons.”

In 1914, Lina retired from the opera stage, concentrating instead on her expanding cosmetics business, writing beauty columns for magazines and newspapers, and acting as promoter and business manager for her husband. In 1915, she returned to Italy to make motion pictures, and later returned to America where she made four more silent films. After five years of retirement she returned to opera to sing with her husband in the Chicago Grand Opera Company, also touring with him in the United states giving joint recitals. The couple eventually split and were divorced in Paris in 1927.

Retiring again from the opera stage, this time permanently, Lina came to be one of the leading beauty specialists in Europe, at the height of her success owning a string of salons not only in Paris, but also in the Hotel Carlton at Cannes; the Hotel Roseraie at Biatritz; the Hotel de Paris at Monte Carlo; and another at Le Touquet.

Later in life she returned to her Italian homeland where she lived with her last husband, the writer Arnaldo Pavoni , on the outskirts of Florence.

She died in tragic circumstances during the Second World War when, on 7th February, 1944, a bomb from an Allied bombing raid destroyed her home.

Reproduced courtesy of Don Gillan, www.stagebeauty.net


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