You definitely know her face, but do you know her story, her name, or that she even did actually exist?
Her repeated face is the muse behind one of the most recognisable prints in interior design; Piero Fornasetti’s eccentric plate series ‘Tema e Variazioni’, which over the years became a decorator’s go-to wallpaper or accessory for achieving a quirky and contemporary facelift. But while her face would seem really familiar and well-known to most, the identity of Lina Cavalieri has been separated from her image and forgotten over time to become one of history’s most overlooked wallflowers.
And you would think we would have remembered someone who was considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, one of the defining icons of the Belle Époque era.
Her story is pretty impressive too. Lina was orphaned at 15, and at the first opportunity, she ran away from the strict Roman Catholic of her orphanage nuns to join a travelling theatre troupe. She landed in Paris where she found a job singing at a café much like the one where Edith Piaf was discovered. From there, her striking looks got her through the doors of the Folies Bergère where she began performing and almost overnight, she had gone from the runaway orphan to the star of Paris vaudeville.
Lina began touring around Europe, particularly to St. Petersburg where she fell in love with a Russian prince no less. They married and had a son, and he paid for Lina to have singing lessons to help bump her up from a vaudeville queen to an opera star.
Lina was part of the tightlacing tradition that saw women use corsetry to create an “hour-glass” figure.
She made her operatic debut in 1900 alongside famous singers in an ambitious production, but she was no Maria Callas. Her performance was met with terrible reviews and to make matters worse, around the same time, her Russian prince dumped her.
But the Italian beauty described as “the personification of Venus on earth” and already one of the most photographed faces of her time, didn’t give up there. Determined to conquer the operatic stage, sure enough by 1906, she was being paid $1,000 a night to perform at The Metropolitan Opera in New York. Her face was money shall we say, as it has proved still to be true so many years later.
Here is the world’s most beautiful woman singing as the soprano in Manon Lescaut…
In New York, she married into the wealthy society set following a whirlwind romance with the painter Robert Winthrop Chanler of the Astor family and Dudley–Winthrop. However it wouldn’t be ‘happily ever after’ for Lina this time either as scandal quickly followed. The marriage ended abruptly after their honeymoon and Lina was vilified for allegedly persuading her husband to sign over his fortune in a prenuptial agreement. She was fired from the Met Opera thanks to the pressures of the powerful Astor family and was driven out of New York high society with an $80,000 cash settlement.
It was time for a career change. Back in Paris, Lina opened a cosmetic salon in Paris and playing on her strengths, became the face of the soap brand Palmolive. She also began writing a make-up advice column in a magazine which resulted in her book, My Secrets of Beauty. Lina also launched her own perfume, had the bottle designed by Julien Viard and cleverly named it “Mona Lina”.
As if that wasn’t enough on her resumé, in her downtime, she also began making motion pictures with her third husband attracting audiences with her coveted style and good looks. She and Lucien Muratore were considered the golden couple of the silver screen briefly, however almost all of her films however are now considered lost films, destroyed over time in studio archives for various reasons.
Lina eventually retired in her sixties, now onto her fourth husband, an Italian wine dealer, and settled down in Florence. They were both killed in an allied bombing raid while trying to collect her valuable jewellery from their house before running to safety.
Phew, what a life. A story even worth telling on stage, sung out in a dramatic opera.
In 1952, an Italian painter stumbled upon her face in a 19th-century magazine. Bewitched by her flawless complexion, Piero Fornasetti began painting her obsessively, and created more than 500 variations of her face, redrawing Lina’s identity and transforming her into an animal, a thief, an Arabian princess, a mask, a man. Why? The late artist admitted, “I don’t know. I began to make them and I never stopped.
If you’ve never been on the Fornasetti website, it’s quite an unexpected treat that includes strange secret pages of fairground shooting games targeting porcelain plates and vases with Lina’s iconic face.
And next time you see Lina on a candle or a trendy restaurant’s bathroom wall, give her a wink now that you know her secret.