The Unconventional Caetani Family
As fascism raised its ugly head in Italy a member of the Italian nobility moved his family to a small town in British Columbia. Leone Caetani was a socialist and scholar who held the titles of Duke of Sermoneta and Prince of Teano. The family was wealthy, cultured, and more than a bit eccentric.
The Caetani Family
Leone Caetani’s family played prominent roles in what is now Italy for more than a thousand years. The real power for the family emerged in 1294 when Benedetto Caetani was elected Pope and took the name Boniface VIII.
Along with the papal connection came huge grants of land. Clever marriages enhanced the reach of the Caetanis who were influential in politics into the 20th century.
Leone Caetani was born into this well-connected family in September 1869. As a young man, he became fascinated by languages, particularly those of the Middle East. He extended this interest to studying Islamic cultures, about which he became a world-renowned expert.
He also served in Italy’s Parliament from 1909 to 1913 as a socialist.
Rise of Italian Fascism
During 1920s, Benito Mussolini and his followers passed a series of laws in Italy that transformed the country from a democracy to a fascist dictatorship. Clearly, Italy was no place for a socialist.
Caetani had also tired of the high society circles of Rome and wanted to live a simpler life. So, the idea of a prince and his partner escaping the suffocating conventions of the establishment for a more normal life is not new.
Leone Caetani had visited the Okanagan Valley region of British Columbia in the 1890s and had clearly liked what he had seen. Although an element of chance was involved in exactly where the family would live: “He chose the town of Vernon by randomly pointing his finger at a map of the Valley!” (The Centre for Literacy).
In 1921, he bought a house in Vernon and moved there to become a gentleman farmer. He tended his orchard and harvested and cut all the logs needed to heat the home in winter.
He was accompanied by his mistress, Ofelia Fabiani, and their three-year-old daughter Sveva. Caetani’s earlier arranged marriage to Vittoria Colonna, daughter of the Prince of Paliano, had failed, but as Roman Catholics divorce was impossible. A Danish companion to Ms. Fabiani, Inger-Marie Jüül, was also part of the entourage.
The family made frequent trips to Europe, enjoying the cultural highlights of the continent. They would stay at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in New York and rent an entire floor.
There were designer clothes from Coco Chanel and art lessons for Sveva from famous painters.
Then, it all came tumbling down. Caetani had sold his land holdings in Italy and bought stocks. The Wall Street Crash wiped out much of the family’s fortune. And, on Christmas Day 1934, Leone Caetani died of cancer.
A Life of Seclusion
Ofelia Fabiani and Sveva Caetani were devastated by Leone’s death. “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” (Caetani Centre).
For the next 25 years, mother and daughter, along with Inger-Marie Jüül, lived shut away in their house in Vernon.
Ofelia developed paranoia about being alone; she made Sveva sleep in the same bedroom as her. She had a fence built around the property and visitors, of whom there were very few, were turned away. She was using a form of emotional blackmail to instill feelings of guilt in Sveva and Inge-Marie to get them to do what she wanted.
Ofelia also became obsessed with cleanliness and it fell to Sveva to scrub floors and wash and iron sheets on a daily basis. Sveva’s contact with the outside world came through the books in her father's library while others were shipped by the crateful from England.
Ofelia was never seen and, after 16 years of what amounted to incarceration, Sveva and Inger-Marie were allowed very occasionally came out of hiding to go to a bank. They lived like this until 1960, when Ofelia died.
A New Life for Sveva
When the will was read there was little for Sveva; the bulk of the estate was bequeathed to the Roman Catholic Church. Her father had already left Sveva the house and property.
She emerged from her enforced isolation, learned to drive, and made friends, many of them.
Susan Brandoli is executive director of the Caetani Cultural Centre in Vernon. She recalls that Sveva needed to earn an income so “She became a teacher and an inspiration to many people in our own community and created this enormous body of artistic work and writings that I think is her legacy.”
She went to the University of Victoria and earned a secondary school teaching certificate, her tuition paid for by loans from her new-found friends. She landed a job near Vernon teaching social studies and art.
She started painting again, an occupation her mother had banned. She completed a series of 56 paintings she called Recapitulation that were a reflection on her life’s journey.
Towards, the end of her life she became crippled by arthritis and could paint no more. She died in April 1994 at the age of 76. She left her house to the City of Vernon for use as a cultural centre and her paintings to the people of Canada.
In 1995, a hardcover book entitled Recapitulation: A Journey was published. It contains all 56 colour plates that symbolize Sveva Caetani’s life journey.
- “A Century Before Meghan and Harry, This Italian Noble Family Sought Refuge in B.C. — and Stayed.” CBC Radio, January 24, 2020.
- “Leone Caetani.” Peoplepill.com, undated.
- “Family History: Sveva Caetani, Caetani Centre, undated.
- “Sveva Caetani: A Fairy Tale Life.” The Centre for Literacy, undated.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor