Lena Cavalieri is a name that many may not know, and yet in her time she was renowned as an opera singer of such exquisite looks that some even called her “Venus on earth”, or the most beautiful woman in the world
The original design created by Fornasetti, based on the exquisite face of Lina Cavalieri
From an early career as a café singer, to the Metropolitan Opera house, and from there to the role of a movie star, Lina’s beauty has now endured in the artwork of the Italian designer, Fornasetti, who discovered her photograph one day when looking through an old magazine. He then became so inspired that he used that single image as the base for a series of designs called 360 Variations, Tema e Variazioni.
A selection of Fornasetti plates
But what of the woman behind the face, which now adorns sets of porcelain plates, not to mention many other forms of merchandise which can be found in the lovely design of the Fornasetti website?
Natalina Cavalieri was born in Rome on Christmas day in 1874 ~ so, a Victorian by birth, and a woman whose figure reflected that fact in her tightly corseted hour-glass form. But she was also a woman whose fame was later to be found in the freer Edwardian era.
She had various jobs from the age of 15, when both of her parents died and Lina became a ward of the state, cared for by Catholic nuns. But she hated the rigid convent life and as soon as she could she ran away, working as a flower girl, or in a factory packing newspapers, ending up in a French cafe singing to the customers.
From then on, her rise was meteoric, appearing in the music halls, even at Paris’ Folies Bergere. And though her voice was said to be somewhat weak and lacking in range, it was pretty enough. And, as to her face! She entranced everyone in the audience.
When appearing in St Petersburg she met and then married the Russian prince, Alexandre Bariatinsky, with whom she was to have a son. She then spent some years having her voice professionally trained, with ambitions to stand on the opera stage rather than the commoner music halls ~ even though she had no real skill when it came to the higher musical arts.
She made her debut in Naples, appearing with no less than the famous Caruso, but the event was not a success, and at this low point in her career matters were made even worse when her husband abandoned their marriage. Lina could have fallen apart, but she continued to work hard and when appearing in La Boheme, playing the part of Mimi, she received much better notices. So long as she played strong Diva roles when she could dress up in jewels and fine clothes to accentuate her beauty, she held the audience in the palm of her hand. Jules Masssenet, the composer, who cast her in his operas, once told the singer the blatant truth: “Your beauty gives you the right to make mistakes sometimes.”
Lena Cavalieri by the Italian artist, Giovanni Boldoni
Another chance was offered for Lina to appear with Caruso ~ this time in 1906, and at New York’s Metropolitan Opera where she was paid $1,000 a night. An astonishing sum of money then, and far more than their regular diva earned.
By the year of 1910, when the Edwardian era came to its end, Lina married for a second time to the muralist, Winthrop Chanler, though that romance also came to end when they were still on their honeymoon. Chanler had signed a pre-nuptial contract to hand over his fortune to his wife, and he came from a very wealthy family – the Astors and Dudley-Winthrops.
A court case was to follow, after which Chanler was disinherited and Lina received a settlement of $80,000, with which she then went on to turn her back on her private and social disgrace and opened a small perfumery shop on Fifth Avenue in New York. There she claimed to sell cosmetics made with her own fair hands and based on secret recipes from Catherine de Medici. Eventually, she had secured an entire chain of salons. She advertised Palmolive soap, and she also wrote for newspapers, with tips on health and beauty. In fact, a book she wrote at the time entitled My Secrets of Beauty is still available today. An interesting record of ingredients and tips for historians or novelists.
A third marriage to Lucien Muratore, a French tenor, another opera singer, ended in 1927. But before this, the couple diverged into the world of silent film. IMDB has several of these creations listed on its site today, some of them Italian and some made in America. And if Lina's acting ability was occasionally in doubt ~ what was not was the fact that her beauty and clothes transformed her into a fashion icon.
But Lina hated making films; all the hot lights and the whirring projectors. She retired to a villa in Florence where she wrote her autobiography (My Truth, Le Mie Verita) while living with her fourth husband, a wine dealer called Giovanni Campari. What she did not write ~ what she could not have known ~ was the way in which she met her death, having been sensationally killed in a WW2 bombing raid. If only Lina and her husband and gone straight to the shelter, rather than running back into their house to try and save her precious jewels.
After her death, her life was recreated for the stage and also film, with Garbo in 1930, playing the part of “Madame Rita Cavallini in “Romance”. And then in 1955, Gina Lollobrigida played the great beauty in La donna piu bella del mondo.
If you would like to know more about the life of this glorious star, Lina Cavalieri: The Life of Opera’s Greatest Beauty by Paul Fryer and Olga Usova was published in 2004.