SVEVA CAETANI (1917 - 1994)
LIFE & ART OF A CANADIAN/ITALIAN ARTIST
Portrait of Sveva Caetani, 1990
by Heidi Thompson
Sveva Caetani di Sermoneta was
born in Rome in 1917. She was the last of an ancient and noble family whose members have
left a considerable imprint on Italian history. Numbered among them were two popes: Gelasio II,
in the 10th century, and Pope Boniface VIII in the 13th century.
Sveva's father, Leone Caetani Duke of Sermoneta, was a
distinguished scholar and a Socialist Deputy of the Italian parliament. In Italy between the two
World Wars he sensed the growing power of Fascism and decided that Canada would provide a more liberal
and healthy environment for himself, his common-law wife, Ofelia, and his daughter Sveva.
In 1921 he immigrated to a small farming town in British Columbia. For Sveva's father, the move
represented a welcome release and change, but for her mother it meant distance from friends and the loss of
a familiar way of life.
Sveva was eighteen when her father died. Her autocratic mother then retired into complete seclusion,
compelling her daughter to share in this for the next twenty-five years. For the first three years
following her father's death, Sveva was not permitted to go out of the house. Whenever she tried, her mother would react with serious heart palpitations.
Ofelia was deeply jealous of her beautiful, talented
and spirited daughter. To prevent Sveva from escaping she severed all contact with the outside world. Letters
were burned and friends turned away at the gate. Ofelia also forbade Sveva
writing and painting, two activities Sveva loved. Day and night Sveva had to obey her mother's
demands. She would scrub the floors and wash the bedding ever day. Her mother was paranoid of germs and insisted
that the dishes were washed before and
after the meals. Sveva was forced to sleep in the hallway outside her mother's bedroom. Later when Ofelia became increasingly ill, Sveva had to nurse her day and night. The mother became increasingly
fearful of her daughter leaving her.
After three years Sveva suffered an emotional breakdown, Following the warnings of their
doctor, Sveva was permitted to spend an hour in the garden each day. However, a fence was built
and she was not allowed to venture beyond the gate. During this lonely and difficult incarceration,
reading became Sveva's only lifeline
to the outside world.
In 1960 Sveva lost her mother, and was obliged to go out and earn her living for the first time at the
age of forty-three. She loved children, and chose to become a teacher. She had never married, or had children of her own. Sveva
also rediscovered her love of painting.
Shortly before her retirement from teaching, she began painting the Recapitulation series. The paintings that you are
studying in this site are from this series. In the latter years of her life,
she became an invalid, confined to a wheelchair. Nevertheless, she continued painting until the
series was completed. Sveva Caetani died in Vernon, British Columbia, on April 27th, 1994.
SELECTED RECAPITULATION PAINTINGS BY SVEVA CAETANI
Back to Top