Sveva Caetani’s Recapitulation Series

From Medieval Mysticism to the Space Age
by Adriana A. Davies, CM, Cav. d’Italia, PhD


A photograph of Sveva Caetani, on display at the Caetani Centre in Vernon. Photo Adriana Davies

Sveva Ersilia Giovanella Maria Fabiani Caetani di Sermoneta was born in Rome, Italy on August 6, 1917 and died in Vernon, BC on April 27, 1994. These two locations were the poles of her physical existence but the universe – past, present, and future – was the inspiration for her art.

Her father, Leone Caetani, who was born September 12, 1869, was the Prince of Teano and Duke of Sermoneta, and his lineage went back to Medieval popes who built the family’s fortunes (in 1294 Benedetto Caetani was elected Pope and took the name Boniface VIII). The family also included many scholars not only of the past of the Roman Empire but also of the world’s languages, Islamic and other religious studies, science and engineering.

Leone completed a degree in Ancient and Oriental Languages and History, University of Rome, in 1891 and, as a post-graduation adventure, travelled to the Selkirks with a friend, to hunt bears. Her mother, the Duke’s young mistress, Ofelia Fabiani (born July 29, 1896) was the daughter of a Roman engineer and a nightclub performer. Leone’s foray into politics as a Socialist won him no friends in the aristocratic world and, as Mussolini came to power, made him an enemy of the state. His younger brother Gelasio Caetani, an engineer with an international practice including in the US, was a supporter of Mussolini, who appointed him Italian consul to the US in 1922.

In order to avoid negative repercussions resulting from his Socialist political stance, and to protect his young daughter and mistress from the criticism of Catholic society (he could not divorce his wife Vittoria Colonna), Leone moved the family to Vernon, BC, in 1921. There he purchased a large home on Pleasant Valley Road as well as an orchard and woodlot. Although Leone succeeded to the dukedom in 1916 on his father Onorato’s death, his brother Gelasio took on the responsibilities of running the family estates when he left for Canada. There he began a new life focused on his wife and daughter, and luxuriating in the wilderness. He did, however, continue his scholarly studies of Islam and published the final volumes of his 10-volume series, The Annals of Islam.

While Leone and Sveva loved the natural surroundings of Vernon, Ofelia, who had brought many trunks full of Paris fashions, never adjusted to life in BC. The family travelled regularly to Europe visiting relatives in France and Italy but this ended in 1931, after the stock market crash that nullified Leone’s investment income. His death of throat cancer on December 25, 1935 in a Vancouver hospital doomed Ofelia to a life deprived of her beloved companion and also of the extravagant lifestyle that she had expected when she had joined her life with the older, and worldlier, Leone, in 1916.

Ofelia sank into depression and compulsive behaviours, and prevented Sveva from associating with other children. She had been educated by governesses and her only formal schooling was from 1930 to 1932 at Crofton House private school in Vancouver. In effect, Ofelia kept her prisoner in their Pleasant Valley Road home. The only other occupant was Miss Jüūl, secretary, friend and general person of all work. Ofelia also prevented Sveva from drawing, which was a favourite pastime (she had drawing lessons in Paris and Monte Carlo in 1930 and demonstrated a real aptitude). Thankfully, she did not forbid her to read and books were not only supplied by her Aunt Marguerite Caetani, a magazine publisher in Paris and Rome, but also ordered by her mother. Sveva, thus, grew up in a world of literary works not only European, British, and American but also works in comparative religion, studies of Western civilization, as well as of the history and traditions of the Near and Far East. Thus, she was an individual outside of the norm of Canadian society in Vernon.

Ofelia’s death in 1960 was shocking for Sveva – the will revealed that her parents had never been married and that she was, therefore, illegitimate. She also discovered that her father had formally adopted her before he obtained his Canadian citizenship (1928) and also left her the family home in Vernon. Any monies and the house he had built for Ofelia in Rome were Ofelia’s property and she had made a bequest to the Roman Catholic Church. Sveva was, thus, at the age of 43, left without money and without a way to earn a living. Through a friend, Vanessa Alexander, she sold some of her mother’s designer clothes for immediate cash and, fortunately, she was given a job in 1964 at St. James Catholic School as a teacher of French, history, and other subjects. It was founded in 1956 by Monsignor John Miles, who had served as the parish priest from 1944 to 1971 and had been Ofelia’s spiritual advisor. The Sisters of St. Ann staffed the school.

At St. James, Sveva discovered a passion for teaching and also children, and decided to complete her high school diploma (1969 Adult Institute in Victoria) and attend teacher training at the University of Victoria (1970-1972). Her major was art. At this time, she made a number of close friends, learned to drive and all of those normal activities that her mother had prevented her from doing. One of her young art professors, John Cawood, advised her to return to painting and she began to do this on her return to Vernon. In 1972, she obtained a job at Charles Bloom Secondary School in Lumby as an art teacher, and also purchased a small house in the community. She began to paint on a regular basis and her subjects were drawn from various sources including popular fantasy works such as Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series, from Dante’s Divine Comedy and also from Greco-Roman mythology. In 1975, in a kind of “Paul on the road to Damascus” moment, Sveva conceptualized, in prose, a series of paintings that would become the Recapitulation series. She returned to the family home and set up a studio. Because of her scholarly sensibility, she began to read works that would serve as guideposts in what became a journey of self-discovery.

The intellectual structure for the series was the undertaking of a journey into her past life, as Dante had done when he was exiled from Florence by his political opponents. His masterwork, La Divina Commedia, was a journey into the liturgical Hell, Purgatory and, ultimately, Paradise, which occurred in the timeframe from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday. The Divina Commedia was part of her “imaginative” inheritance from the Caetani family. The family possessed a 14th or early 15th century edition of the work and her Uncle Gelasio had produced an edition of it in 1930. From his hospital bed in 1935, her father had told her to read Dante. Thus, in the Recapitulation series, her beloved father takes on the role of guide (the poet Virgil serves as Dante’s guide in the Divine Comedy in Hell and Purgatory and Beatrice, Dante’s childhood beloved takes over at the end of the Purgatory section). Sveva recounts parallel journeys – that of her father, who she presents as a Christ-like figure betrayed by his peers, and her own solitary journey.

While adhering to the “framework” of Dante’s work, Sveva noted that her world was not the religious one of Dante, nor were his experiences hers. Her masterwork is in the medium of watercolour but she provides contextual material in both prose and poetry. She admitted to Italian studies expert Dr. Joseph Pivato of Athabasca University in 1987 that she had considered becoming a writer as she grew up but later felt that her calling was art.

Until 1983, when she retired from school teaching because of her medical conditions (diabetes and arthritis) that limited her mobility, she painted on evenings and weekends. She was driven by a burning passion not only to give some purpose and meaning to her fraught life but also to understand the contemporary world in which she lived. She had an insatiable appetite for knowledge about all aspects of life not just the arts and culture but also theories of civilization ranging from Oswald Spengler’s vision of the West in decline; to the doctrines of the Christian/Judaic/Islamic traditions; to the new era of fantasy and mythopeiac literature represented by Tolkien and Peake; to the Kaballah, theosophy and the world of myth and symbol of Jung and others; to the art, culture, and archaeology of the ancient world not only in Europe but also the Middle and Far East and the Americas; and, finally, to the Einsteinian universe of relativity theory and beyond. Her collection of books (in excess of 600) includes titles from all of these topic areas as well as fine and decorative arts.

By and large, she exhibited rarely and her works did not sell; thus, she gifted many to friends. But she had a larger vision for Recapitulation – she wanted the works to stay together (in the end there were 56 in number). When she made approaches to BC art institutions, she did not receive any interest. Her subject matter was not “on trend” and the paintings were complex in their subject matter, and stretched the bounds of the watercolour medium (some are huge). Her personality was also intimidating: she was tall like her father, who was over six feet in height; and dominated conversations with her extensive knowledge. She was, thus, intimidating for those who were not friends.

It would be her friend Vanessa Alexander, who was married to a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, Keith Alexander, who brokered a political deal. Vanessa approached the Alberta Minister of Culture, Mary LeMessurier, who told her to speak to the Executive Director of the Alberta Art Foundation, Tin Ng. This was a ministerial directive and Ng contacted Sveva and a deal was brokered for Sveva to gift the collection to the AAF and received a tax receipt in return. Because there was not a record of sales to help determine “fair market value,” the works, on average, were determined to be worth $1,000 to $3,000 (except for the very large, composite works), which was the basic insurance value at the time. Gail Lint, Art Collections Consultant for the Foundation, went out to Vernon to arrange the transport of the first 31 works, which were exhibited at the Provincial Museum of Alberta from January to March 1987. The exhibit was supported by Giovanni Bincoletto, Italian Vice-Consul in Edmonton and the National Congress of Italian-Canadians, Edmonton District, of which I was the president. I had the pleasure of meeting Sveva and interviewing her for the Italian television program Panorama Italiano.

The intellectual “armature” of Sveva’s work was grasped by T. T. [Tina] Cristini, who reviewed the exhibit for The Gateway student newspaper at the University of Alberta (February 12, 1987). She writes in “Journey through Hell to Hope”:

For a spiritually awakening experience, try visiting the Provincial Museum (until March 1) to view the exhibit entitled RECAPITULATION: A JOURNEY by Canadian artist Sveva Caetani. Caetani is an Italian-born artist from Vernon, B.C., who may truly be called a modern renaissance woman. Interested in everything under the sun and extremely knowledgeable in most subjects, she has synthesized her personal experiences as well as her eclectic readings into this series of watercolour paintings.

Sveva was an artist outside of her time and it is no wonder that art institutions and organizations in her home province did not know what to make of her art. In gifting her works to the AAF, Sveva wanted them preserved in perpetuity, and made known not only in the art world but also by the greater public.

The AAF took its stewardship role very seriously and had all of the paintings reframed according to best practices in the conservation field; documented the paintings; photographed them; created interpretive text panels; and also arranged for occasional exhibits not only in Alberta but also British Columbia. The last major exhibits occurred in the early 1990s. In 1991, with the support of the Italian Consul General, they travelled to the Italian Cultural Institute in Vancouver; and, in 1993, they travelled to the Columbus Centre Gallery in Toronto and the Old Teacher’s College Gallery in Ottawa, again with the support of the Italian Embassy.

THE BELL TOWER by Sveva Caetani, 1979

Around 1983, Sveva met or re-met Heidi Thompson, a young woman who would be instrumental in helping her to create a vehicle for future generations to understand her work.1 Vernon-born Thompson studied at the University of Art and Design in Zurich from 1975-79 and received a diploma in professional photography. Her association with Sveva, one of friendship and trust, resulted in the production of the beautiful book, Recapitulation: A Journey, published by Coldstream Books (Heidi’s own imprint), in 1995. The book is a summation of Sveva’s achievement in visual terms. Together with Angela Gibbs Peart and Dennis Butler, Thompson edited the book; did the photography and book design; and saw to its publication.

To cover publishing costs, she pre-sold copies in the community. This was not an easy task though Sveva had many friends and supporters. In a Publisher’s Note in the book, Heidi observes that Sveva had given a lecture at her high school in Vernon in 1974 and notes, “Her visit and passionate discussion about art, humanity and history was the most memorable and inspiring experience of my twelve years of school.”2

Sadly, Sveva did not live to see the published work; she died on April 27, 1994. Thompson notes that, initially, Sveva wanted a hand-bound edition of the 56 paintings in the series; however, when apprised of the prohibitive cost, Thompson convinced Sveva to have her publish a conventional, high-quality book and gave her the publication rights. In return, Thompson committed to providing Sveva with as many books as she wished and, after costs were covered, she promised to share royalties with Vernon’s art community. In 1996, Recapitulation received the VanCity Book of Excellence Award.

Sveva also would have been pleased that a short obituary was included in Canada From Afar: The Daily Telegraph Book of Canadian Obituaries, published in 1996. It begins as follows: “Sveva Caetani (who died at Vernon, British Columbia, on April 27 1994, aged 76) was a painter of brooding allegorical watercolours whose life story could have inspired a novel by Henry James.” The anonymous author was, no doubt, thinking of James’ series of short stories and novellas that can be described as psychological thrillers, and focus on some abnormality of the central character or characters. These include The Beast in the Jungle, The Altar of the Dead, The Cage, Daisy Miller and the Turn of the Screw.  In the last, the author is a governess who feels that there is something mysterious about the two children that she looks after. All the stories have a “twist” and focus on what is reality and what is illusion. This particular one turns on whether something terrible actually happened in the house at Bly, Essex, where the governess and the children reside. Is the governess seeing the ghosts of past inhabitants affected by a tragedy, or it is her own mind that is disordered?

The only “professional” review that her work received at the time was of the book Recapitulation: A Journey by Carolyn W. MacHardy, Professor of Art History at Okanagan University College, Kelowna. It appeared in the Woman’s Art Journal in 1997-1998. The review is mixed: while admiring Sveva’s intellect, MacHardy found her works confusing. She notes: “In her writings the trilingual Caetani seems worldly and sophisticated, drawing not only from canonical texts of the Western tradition (Dante, the Bible, Goethe, Poe, and Rilke) but also from mythology, Hinduism, and the literature of mysticism.”3 MacHardy’s view of her works is not sympathetic. She writes:

Her paintings, however, are problematic. Many are technically assured and reveal Caetani’s familiarity with European movements of the early part of the century such as Futurism. Other images, however, with their excessive prettiness or their reliance on visual tropes that have lost their impact through overexposure are less interesting; the transparent body with its forest of veins, the opaque, fragmented body as archaeological remnant, a distorted picture plane to signify imagined or psychic states.

The dichotomy between her art and life is here established and the pattern of her life usurping her art is also set; this is a lead that journalists, authors, and film-makers would follow.

ELEGY UPON A NEVER-NEVER LAND by Sveva Caetani, 1982

In 2000, Karen Avery completed her Master’s thesis titled “The Elusive Self: Storytelling the Journey to Identity in Sveva Caetani’s Autobiographical Series ‘Recapitulation’.” This is a scholarly work with a good biography. What is less successful, in my opinion, is the focus on autobiography as a tool of women artists, the most prominent example being Frida Kahlo, and Avery’s over-reliance on feminist art critics and their perspectives. In 2003, Avery was included in a project led by Ron Candy and Barbara Bell of the Greater Vernon Museum, and Dr. Catherine Harding, History in Art, University of Victoria. This was sponsored by CURA (Community-University Research Alliance) at the University. The exhibit, “Caetani: Visions of Rebirth,” ran from August 28 to November 8, 2003 in Vernon with a smaller exhibit at UVic.

An exhibit catalogue was produced titled Caetani di Sermoneta: An Italian Family in Vernon, 1921-1994.4 In 2003, Jim Elderton, a local journalist and filmmaker produced a 41-minute film titled Caetani: Recapitulation, which was shown as part of the Brown Bag Lectures at the Vernon Public Library. In 2005, Elderton completed the 90-minute documentary, Sveva: Prisoner of Vernon; this focused on her mother’s mental illness and her imprisonment in the family’s mansion. Sveva’s posthumous reputation continued to develop through exhibits and media interest. An exhibit in the Nelson Art Gallery was reviewed by Anne DeGrace in an article titled “Divine Comedy the paintings of Sveva Caetani” in Inland magazine (winter 1999/2000, 9). The exhibit featured 18 works. The review is formulaic: beloved father; emotionally absent/controlling mother; isolation/imprisonment; suffering; and flowering of artistic talent in later life. Sveva becomes a mythic figure, out-of-step with current times but with a kind of universal appeal for creative feminists.

A much-more ambitious feature article by Lynn Dewing titled “Not even her psychic mother could penetrate Sveva’s world” appeared in Okanagan Life (July/August 2006, 38-41). Not only is Dewing thorough about the biographical elements pertaining to the Caetani family of Vernon, she raises the issue of Sveva’s illegitimacy as the reason for the move from Rome to Vernon. She writes: “Then, Leone became ill. Life in the household changed forever when he died in 1935. At first Sveva was allowed to paint, resulting in a group of vignettes with strong religious content and titles such as Virgin Mary at the Cross. Ofelia soon felt threatened by her daughter’s art, however, and finally banned her from drawing and painting.” She quotes film-maker Jim Elderton, observing that Ofelia was psychic and cites the story that Sveva told friends, “A glass decanter exploded when Sveva was at a friend’s house once and she said, ‘That’s Mother. She’s objecting to me having a good time’.”

At her death, Sveva gifted her 1.3 acres of gardens and 6,000 square foot heritage home on Pleasant Valley Road at 35th Avenue to the community of Greater Vernon. It was Sveva’s wish that the home be used as a community cultural facility and her close friends (many of them members of the elite of British ancestry) were determined to make this a reality. At first, the bequest was under the Vernon Public Art Gallery Society but in 2008 a separate society, the Caetani Cultural Centre Society, was created to operate the house which became a kind of living history museum. One of Sveva’s friends was a young woman, Kim Allen, who worked at the Royal Bank and who helped her with her financial affairs. She appointed her as her co-executor.

Local artists and community volunteer, aj jaeger, also became involved and strongly believed that an art gallery professional was needed to move the Society forward. In 2013, she promoted the hiring of Susan Brandoli as executive director, a position that she held for 10 years. She had worked as a director/curator at the Vernon Public Art Gallery for 12 years, and had BA and BFA degrees from the University of Regina, and a Master of Fine Arts from UBC. The seeking of public and private-sector funds required to preserve the house and grounds, and to set up programs to engage the public began. A primary goal began to “repatriate” the Recapitulation series from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts. On September 4, 2021, the Caetani Cultural Centre issued a press release with the header: “Renowned Caetani Artwork Returned to Vernon.”5 It continues:

“The Caetani Cultural Centre Society is very excited to have this iconic work back in Vernon where it belongs,” said society President Sherry Price. “The timing is perfect as we are finally ready to open the house to the public.”

The past few years have seen a concerted effort by the Caetani society to bring the house up to code to accommodate public access as well as the various Caetani collections – artwork and artifacts in the Caetani Society’s own collection; artifacts which until recently were housed at the Greater Vernon Museum and Archives; and the return of the Recapitulation series of artworks from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts (AFA).

Both timing and hard work have made these partnerships between the Caetani Centre, the Vernon Museum and the AFA possible, with the hope to involve other organizations and individuals to consolidate the significant Caetani collection further. A significant private donation and years of concentrated fundraising and support from local businesses, artists and community supporters have made the return of the works possible.

This outcome, which occurred under President Sherry L. Price, was about a year in the making and was prompted by the fact that it was the centenary year of the arrival in Vernon of Leone and his small family. It took hard work on the part of the board to bring this desirable outcome about.

The artworks that make up the Recapitulation series were not necessarily painted in the order in which Sveva presented them in the book. There was at least one other work that she did not include in the book.6 The book can, thus, be viewed as an exhibit curated by the artist. In order to ensure that the viewer/reader had a basic understanding of the works, Sveva supplied textual and poetic explanations as well as end-notes and references. Sveva was intentional in her sequencing of them to conform to a narrative that she wished to share with the viewer/reader. Dante’s Divina Commedia served as one “shaping” narrative – the narrator/hero’s journey into Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven guided by a “spirit” guide – in the case of Dante, Virgil; in the case of Sveva, her father Leone.

Based on her extensive readings, she referenced other paths to enlightenment including Jewish mysticism and the psycho-analytical Jungian path. She thus encapsulates the movement, beginning in the 1960s, represented in what became cult books, plays, and movies to explore new realities. Whether these were brought about by scientific discoveries resulting from moon exploration and satellites, or the “artificial paradises” of psychedelic drugs preached by Carlos Castaneda or psychologist Timothy Leary, they moved the search for enlightenment into the popular consciousness. Even the musical/film Hair has a song titled “The Age of Aquarius.”

While Sveva was aware of these movements, particularly because she went to university at the age of 53 in 1970, her own quest is based on the scholarship acquired through her father, and which she continued to cultivate through extensive readings. To take these complex ideas and attempt to represent them in visual terms was ambitious and, I believe, by and large, that she succeeded. A less sympathetic viewer/reader might not be convinced. Sveva was aware of this and, in an interview with Barbara Hartley, stated: “Most people are used to images … the surrealism of Salvador Dali … limp watches … pianoforte with breasts, or something like that … and they laugh at it, they don’t really take the symbolism very seriously. My symbolism has always been serious, and therefore, people find it frightening.”7

The Recapitulation series does not fit within the standard models of visual art practised at the time in Canada. The series is not only challenging but also enormously exciting in its uniqueness and power. The paintings, and Sveva’s writings about them, are inseparable and defy classification. They deal with myth and symbol and place her individual story, that of the questor or seeker for truth, and that of her family in front of a backdrop of Western civilization that is in decline. When looking at Sveva’s paintings in the series, I am reminded of T. S. Eliot’s epic poem, The Wasteland, as well as The Four Quartets. Eliot was a cousin of her Aunt Marguerite Chapin Caetani, who had two literary magazines, Commerce and Le Botteghe Oscure, the first published when she resided in Paris and the second, when she resided in Rome. In them she published contemporary authors from not only France and Italy but also the United Kingdom, Germany, and the US and, for a time, beginning around 1930-1931, sent her niece books.

Sveva’s symbolism initially is derived from Dante and religious mystics throughout time, and in different cultures. Her quest is presented as follows in the section “Route” in the book Recapitulation, A Journey:

Locked into remembering, the daughter begins her journey. Her father is summoned and the two Travellers enter into Hell-on-earth, the Burrows of Nightmare. Having passed life’s personal spectres, they go through the “dead seasons” of their shared experiences and find Her – the mother. Then they reach the harbour where she stays, and the Boatman takes father and daughter on. Together they travel through areas of fate, representing Purgatory, and then through the realms of great human achievement or Heaven. Before the journey ends, and after they are reunited with Her, there are litanies sung to the innocent and beautiful things that perfect earth and existence

Recapitulation is now over. The Boatman, father and mother are gone, and the daughter is left to meet the experiences which, for all livings things, belong to each alone.

To execute this vision, she takes ideas, images and symbols and creates a “world view” as startling as that created by Dante 700 years earlier. In his exploration of the human mind and sexuality, Totem and Taboo, Sigmund Freud writes about the artist as follows:

In only a single field of our civilization has the omnipotence of thoughts been retained, and that is in the field of art. Only in art does it still happen that a man who is consumed by desires performs something resembling the accomplishment of those desires and that what he does in play produces emotional effects—thanks to artistic illusion—just as though it were something real. People speak with justice of the ‘magic of art’ and compare artists to magicians. But the comparison is perhaps more significant than it claims to be. There can be no doubt that art did not begin as art for art’s sake.

FAUST IN UTERO by Sveva Caetani, 1986

Sveva truly had “encyclopedic” knowledge of subjects that interested her. The catalogue of her personal collection includes over 700 books. About 75 to 100 are studies of individual artists but there are also a significant number relating to individual periods in art history, world-wide in scope and ranging from past to present (the latest acquisitions date to the early 1990s). Thus, for example, when she chooses to paint the Goddess Coatlicue, she was able to consult books that she had on Aztec art; and when she painted the Sphinx, she consulted her books on Egyptian antiquities; similarly with Indian, Chinese, Japanese, or other national art. There are also a number of books relating to specific topics relating to technique and the teaching of art – this is to be expected in the collection of a woman who taught art. There are a number that focus on watercolour, which was her medium of choice, including some on Mughal miniatures, which were watercolours on vellum or paper. She also had a book on Walt Disney cartoons so her interests in the visual arts were wide-ranging.

Despite the dark scenes that Sveva depicts in Recollections (relating not only to her father’s declining fortunes but also the state of the world, war, environmental degradation and the preponderance of evil in the world), she does not give up hope and what I consider the “concluding” painting of the series, “Makimono of the Ninth,” is transcendent. Sveva does not make it the last painting but, rather places it at “GREAT THEMES FOR A JOURNEY EXPERIENCE 37 MAKIMONO OF THE NINTH” or tenth painting before the end of the series. It is Dantean in nature and is also a “symbolist” work in which music, shapes, and colour are fused to suggest the divine, that is, the music of the spheres. Rollo May, existential psychologist, in his 1991 book titled The Cry for Myth notes that, in a fragmented world in which traditional religious and other value systems are in decline, people need myths to sustain them. He draws on Classical Greek myths as well as other writings that help individuals understand the universe and human life in it. Sveva’s work is a perfect example of such a creation.

Sveva’s mastery of the watercolour medium is complete and the scale of some of the works challenges the limitations of the medium. The Recapitulation series demonstrates the evolution of Sveva’s artistic style that is both representational and symbolic. I firmly believe that she belongs not only in the canon of Canadian artists (particularly in the under-represented area of women artists) but also world art. What is her achievement? In visual terms, she has left a compelling body of work that is both challenging and uplifting. In psychological terms, she goes through a “dark night of the soul” and achieves what was, for her, a state of enlightenment. She uses all of her knowledge of commentators on the human condition throughout the ages as signs and guide posts through her journey. She also draws on her extensive knowledge of the visual arts and, on occasion, paints an homage to someone that she found particularly inspiring. Recapitulation is thus a masterwork in both visual art and the written word. I am pleased that my own readings that were similarly broad gave me some insight into her work, and my research and writing skills enabled me to write a critical biography and catalogue raisonné of the Recapitulation series.

During my research I found the source of the title for her series. Sveva cites German-born, Israeli-philosopher Gershom Scholem’s book Jewish Mysticism [actually Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism], published in 1941, in explanatory matter for the painting “IV LE MORTE STAGIONE EXPERIENCE 11 THE TREE BENEATH THE ROOT.” It is, however, his ground-breaking book On the Kaballah and Its Symbolism, first published in German in 1961 and, then, in English, in 1969, that is more directly pertinent to her work.8 Throughout his life, Scholem collected and studied works relating to mysticism and scriptural commentary, and became the first professor of Jewish mysticism at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In On the Kaballah, he writes:

The totality of these potencies, united in the primordial dekas, forms the world of the sejiroth, of the unfolding divine unity which embraces the archetypes of all being. This world, it cannot be over-emphasized, is a world of divine being, but it overflows without interruption or new beginning into the secret and visible worlds of Creation, all of which in their structure recapitulate [the highlighting is the author’s] and reflect the intradivine structure.

Thus, Sveva, in the Recapitulation series decided to “retell” or “restate” her life and experience in visual terms as part of the “intradivine structure” as noted by Scholem.

Sveva’s life inspired several creative works including Steven Lattey’s short story Behind the Fence (1999), Daphne Marlatt’s, Reading Sveva (2016), and Laisha Rosnau’s Little Fortress (2019). Lattey provides a word-picture of the tall and elegant Sveva striding on the street with a shopping basket followed by the diminutive Miss Jūūl, and observes:

The mystery is there, upstairs in the big house, where the mother stands with her back to the heat register, fingers entwined in the warm metal coils. She is cold, she is always cold. Mother lives upstairs and never goes outside and nobody ever sees her. The rumours of her madness are whispered over our small heads at five o’clock suppers, whispered between neighbours over backyard fences. The endless rumours. We climb into the barn’s loft. We think we see a shadow moving across an upstairs window.

Without any evidence, though in keeping with the “fairy tale” that he is writing, he also presents Ofelia as a calculating woman who entraps Leone, and Leone as a big, bad wolf.

Marlatt, through her poetry, celebrates Sveva’s life and, while recounting the usual “victim” narrative also shows insight into her creative thinking. She writes: “Although I was intrigued by the complexities of the Caetani family romance, what increasingly drew me to Sveva’s work is the ontological question expressed in much of her writing: What is the role of human consciousness in the larger orders of the cosmos?” She thereby acknowledges the complex woman who wrote to Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. It is Marlatt’s own poetry, however, that engages and touches me as she “riffs” on images, poems and observations in Sveva’s writings.

Rosnau’s work, while focusing on the enigmatic Miss Jüül, who died in 1973, is also a re-telling of the lives of Leone, Ofelia and Sveva as a backdrop to the fictionalized life of faithful servant Inger-Marie, who lives in the Caetani family’s shadow. At the centre of Rosnau’s depiction is a woman who is used by men and experiences sexual passion in a passionless way, and who is viewed by the men who use her as “the Little Virgin.” Miss Jüül reminds me of August Strindberg’s masterpiece, Miss Julie, published in 1888, and its “life-denying” heroine. It too is a compelling work that straddles the fine line between women as victims and as independent heroines who construct their own lives and narratives. Rosnau, according to her own account, spent years reading archival materials pertaining to the Caetani family and Miss Jüül and could have written a biography of Sveva, but chose instead to write a fictionalized account. Because the book is so well written, the reader needs to beware of taking everything that is said about the Caetanis as truth.

Sveva left a nearly 400-page manuscript titled “Exploration” that looks at various theories of Creation and evolution of thought about man’s place in the universe. In it, she describes herself as an “intelligent observer” interested in phenomena and writes in “Chapter II The Overview: Its Implications”:

The hunger for the ideal, in fact, as the intrinsic goal of creativity, is deeply significant of what the human being – the intelligent observer – feels called upon to bring into existence. It is also symptomatic that each such effort does not pacify the impulse – only exhaustion, or death itself, will convince a creative being that “his job is done”. This human instrumentality is again illustrated in myth.

The Caetani Centre in Vernon. Photo Adriana Davies


Select Bibliography

Avery, Karen.  The Elusive Self: Storytelling and the Journey to Identity in Sveva Caetani’s Autobiographical Series “Recapitulation. Unpublished MA thesis. University of Victoria, 2000.

Brandoli, Susan. “Recapitulation The Story of Sveva Caetani.” Talk for the Kelowna Canadian Italian Club, January 19, 2022. URL:, retrieved November 20, 2023.

Caetani, Sveva. “Leone Caetani: World Traveller Who Came to Vernon.” B.C. Historical News, Winter 1993-94, 29-31.

Caetani, Sveva. Files. Alberta Foundation for the Arts, 1984-2022.

Cristini, T. T. (Tina).  “Journey through Hell to Hope.” The Gateway, February 12, 1987.

Davies, David Twiston, ed. “Sveva Caetani.” Canada From Afar: The Daily Telegraph Book of Canadian Obituaries, 381-382. Toronto & Oxford: Dundurn Press, 1996. URL:, retrieved April 24, 2024.

DeGrace, Anne. “Divine Comedy the paintings of Sveva Caetani.” Inland, winter 1999/2000, 9.

Dewing, Lynn. “Not even her psychic mother could penetrate Sveva’s world.” Okanagan Life, July/August 2006, 38-41.

Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics, translated by James Strachey. London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950; new edition: Routledge Classics, 2001.

Harding, Catherine. Caetani di Sermoneta: An Italian Family in Vernon, 1921 to 1994. Vernon, BC: Greater Vernon Museum and Archives, 2003.

Lattey, Steven. Behind the Fence. Vernon: Caetani Centre, British Columbia, 2022.

MacHardy, Carolyn W. “Recapitulation: A Journey by Sveva Caetani.” Woman’s Art Journal, Autumn, 1997 – Winter, 1998, vol. 18, No 2, 58.

Marlatt, Daphne. Reading Sveva. Vancouver, BC: Talon Books, 2016.

Rosnau, Laisha. Little Fortress. Hamilton, ON: Buckrider Books, 2019.

Scholem, Gershom. On the Kabballah and Its Symbolism, translated by Ralph Manheim. New York: Schocken Books, 1963. 

Thompson, Heidi, Angela Gibbs Peart and Dennis Butler, eds., Recapitulation A Journey by Sveva Caetani, Vernon, BC: Coldstream Books, 1995.

University of Victoria, “The Caetani Family Project,” CURA (Community-University Research Alliance), URL:, retrieved May 1, 2024.

Vitelli, Pietro. Sveva Caetani, Il Viaggio nell’anima dell’ultima dei Caetani di Sermoneta. Rome, Italy: Roffredo Caetani , 2020.


Adriana A. Davies presenting on Sveva Caetani’s Recapitulation series at a talk at the Caetani Cultural Centre Gallery in Vernon on June 6, 2024. She is standing in front of the “Presences in the Maelstrom: Angels of Poetry,” which is the 32nd painting in the series.

Adriana A. Davies, Order of Canada and Cavaliere d’Italia recipient, was born in Italy, grew up in Canada and has BA and MA degrees from the University of Alberta, and a doctorate from the University of London, England. She has worked as a writer, editor, curator, fine and decorative arts specialist, and cultural executive director.  She was science editor of The Canadian Encyclopedia and also created the Alberta Online Encyclopedia (, comprising 84 multimedia websites (33 with Indigenous content). She was involved in the Canadian Museums Association and Assembly of First Nations Task Force on Museums and First Peoples; implemented three Alberta Museums Association symposia on the same subject the last being, “Re-inventing the Museum on Native Terms”; and created three internships to engage Indigenous young people in content creation for the Alberta Online Encyclopedia.  Publications include The Dictionary of British Portraiture (two volumes); From Realism to Abstraction: The Art of J. B. Taylor; The Rise and Fall of Emilio Picariello; The Frontier of Patriotism: Alberta and the First World War (co-editor and contributor); From Sojourners to Citizens: Alberta’s Italian History; poetry anthology Changing My Skin: Dark Elegies and Other Poems; and memoir My Theatre of Memory: A Life in Words.


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction and poetry)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an online book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

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  1. For further information on Thompson’s relationship with Sveva see her website, Heidi Thompson Art, URL:, retrieved November 12, 2023. Thompson’s large, abstract, colourist, luminous works are clearly influenced by Sveva’s colour palette. ↩︎
  2. Heidi Thompson, et al., Recapitulation A Journey by Sveva Caetani, Vernon, BC: Coldstream Books, 1995, 127. ↩︎
  3. Carolyn W. MacHardy, “Recapitulation: A Journey by Sveva Caetani,” in Woman’s Art Journal, Autumn, 1997 – Winter, 1998, vol. 18, No 2, 58. ↩︎
  4. Catherine Harding, Caetani di Sermoneta: An Italian Family in Vernon, 1921 to 1994. Vernon, BC: Greater Vernon Museum and Archives, Jan. 1, 2003. ↩︎
  5. Caetani Centre website, “Renowned Caetani Artwork Returned to Vernon,” URL:, retrieved November 16, 2023. ↩︎
  6. One of these, untitled, was included in the 2003 exhibit curated by Catherine Harding which was shown at the Vernon Art Gallery and is included in a virtual exhibit posted by the University of Victoria. See: University of Victoria, The Caetani Family Project, CURA (Community-University Research Alliance), URL:, retrieved April 10, 2023. ↩︎
  7. Cited by Avery, 84. ↩︎
  8. Gershom Scholem, Zur Kabbala and ihrer Symbolik (Rhein-Verlag, Zurich, 1960). I have used the Ralph Mannheim translation, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), which is available online. URL: On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism ( ↩︎

2 comments on “Sveva Caetani’s Recapitulation Series

  1. I came across a copy of Recapitulation a couple of years ago and was astounded at the artwork. I was pleased to add Sveva Caetani to my BC Artists project with a small biography, in which I noted, “This luminous series of paintings is probably the most incredible, sustained artistic vision of imaginary realities ever painted in British Columbia.” I am pleased to see this article continue to build on her legacy.

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