A Visual Key to Pere Gimferrer’s Fortuny

The highly abstract and poetic idiom of Pere Gimferrer’s Fortuny can easily obscure its documentary basis: virtually every episode in the novel is based on some historical or visual record. Painting and photography are particularly important to decoding it. Gimferrer has stressed that the reader need not track down all his references, that what is important is the writing’s poetic force. As a reader, that was sufficient for me, but as a translator, I felt a need to better know the text’s background. My editor at Godine and I considered illustrating my translation; in the end, it didn’t happen; but since I still have a folder of images relating to the text, which not only aided my understanding of it, but also gave me an appreciation for the Fortunys and their artistry, I thought I would put this up here, in case anyone else were interested.

Chapter One: The Man in the Turban

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Mariano Fortuny y Marsal – The Man With the Turban

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Mariano Fortuny y Marsal – The Battle of Tétouan

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Mariano Fortuny y Marsal – The Contino

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Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo – Self Portrait

Chapter Two: The Outsiders

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Henry James by John Singer Sargent

Chapter 3: The Flower Maidens

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Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo – The Flower Maidens

Chapter Four: The Tragedienne

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Eleonora Duse by Vittorio Corcos

Chapter Five: At Palazzo Martinengo

Chapter 5 Portrait of Cecilia de Madrazo.jpg

Portrait of Cecilia de Madrazo by Luis de Madrazo

Chapter Six: Villa Pisani

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The Amores statues in Villa Pisani

Chapter Seven: Interlude

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Émilienne d’Alençon

Chapter Eight: Eros’s Mirror

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Study of a Nude by John Singer Sargent

Chapter Nine: A Visit

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Marcel Proust as a Young Man

Chapter Ten: Latitudes

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Condé Nast in a Fortuny Gown

Chapter Eleven: Ornithology

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Carpaccio, Two Venetian Ladies

Chapter Twelve: The Traveler

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Hugo von Hofmannsthal

Chapter Thirteen: Embellishment

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Sketch for a Fortuny Retractable Dome

Chapter Fourteen: Visions

Chapter 14 Paul-Cèsar Helleu, G. Boldini and L. Casati in the Palazzo Leoni by Mariano Fortuny.jpg

Paul-Cèsar Helleu, G. Boldini, and L. Casati at the Palazzo Fortuny, by Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo

Chapter Fifteen: Henriette

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Portrait of Henriette Fortuny by Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo

Chapter Sixteen: Nocturne

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Liane de Pougy

Chapter Seventeen: Return to Villa Pisani

Villa Pisani

Chapter Eighteen: Theaters

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Portrait of the Comtesse de Béarn

Chapter Nineteen: Intermission

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Enrico Caruso

Chapter Twenty: The Wax Figures

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Mariano Fortuny y Marsal

Chapter Twenty-One: Instants

Chapter 21 Marc Pourpe, son of Liane de Pougy, in aviator costume.jpg

Marc Pourpe, son of Liane de Pougy

Chapter Twenty-Two: The Lovers

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Theater Design for Tristan by Fortuny

Chapter Twenty-Three: The Sphinx

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Dolores del Rio, from Journey Into Fear

Chapter Twenty-Four: Encounters

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Charles and Oona Chaplin

Chapter Twenty-Five: Episode

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Natacha Rambova with Rodolfo Valentino

Chapter Twenty-Six: Sisterly

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Lillian Gish in a Fortuny Gown

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Table Talk

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A window in Granada, by Mariano Fortuny y Marsal

Chapter Twenty-Eight: Portrait

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A portrait of Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo

Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Business

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The Fortuny Venise Logo

Chapter Thirty: The Dwelling

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A Fortuny Pattern

Chapter Thirty-One: The Resolution


Mary McCarthy as a young woman. Kay wears a Fortuny gown in her novel The Group.

Chapter 31 Julie Christie in Fortuny need permission

Julie Christie in Fortuny tunic and leggings.

Chapter Thirty-Two: Incursions

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Orson Welles in Othello

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Orson Welles in the New York Times

Chapter Thirty-Three: The Second of May

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Goya: The Second of May, or the Charge of the Mamelukes


Goya, The Second of May, 1808

Chapter Thirty-Four: The Bell

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Fortuny’s system of indirect lighting

Chapter Thirty-Five: The Japanese Salon

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Mariano Fortuny y Marsal: The Artist’s Children in the Japanese Salon

Ausiàs March


That Ausiàs March (1400-1459) is unknown to general readers in English is a serious omission to a proper conception of the breadth of the western poetic tradition. A knight and nobleman working in the shadow of Petrarch, he abandoned the conceits of the troubadours and the somewhat virginal idealism of stilnovismo for a more concrete and intimate treatment of his obsessions. In his morbidity, he recollects the Kirchhofsgedanken of the German poet and dramatist Andreas Gryphius, though March is elegant and sorrowful whereas Gryphius is grotesque. I first encountered March’s name in the epigraph to Edmund White’s Farewell Symphony:

QUI no és trist, de mos dictats no cur, / o’n algun temps que sia trist estat

Only those who are sad / or have been sad at some time/ need bother with my works.

Robert Archer, Cervantes Emeritus Professor at King’s College, London, has done valuable work on Ausiàs, but there is still no rhymed translation of his work in English. I have toyed with the idea of doing one, but the difficulty I’ve had in getting easier or more patently appealing authors published is potent suasion thereagainst, particularly as even a poor rendering of the original requires a great deal of effort.

I don’t consider that there’s much room for absoluteness in translation, and whether mimicry of rhyme and meter yield the best version depends on the poet in question, the translator’s sensibility, the in-and out-languages, and the reader’s particular tolerances and proclivities. As a translator, I instinctively feel there is something lackadaisical about translations indifferent to the form of the original, but as a reader, I must admit that the singsong qualities of the many rhymed translations of, say, Pushkin or Baudelaire, is a deeply irritating distraction.

Regardless, I have stopped working crosswords because I don’t know enough about movies or sports, and attempting a rhymed translation, however questionable the result, offers a similar sort of amusement. It is not perfect: “erstwhile friends” seems very weak to me, and “Absence eats into it,” which I hear as –––UUU, is cacophonous.  I am having trouble cutting and pasting the original Catalan, but it is the first poem in this anthology, which also includes English prose versions.

Take me as one who savors dreams,
Who savor finds in frenzied thoughts:
As one whose fancies harbor naught
But vanished time, and absence deem
A solace lorn that torment feigns to flee
But falters, and falls prone before its claims.
No good do times to come proclaim:
For me, what’s best nor was nor is to be.

My heart dilates with love for time expired,
With love for what is not, for absence pure,
Until my thoughts, in reveries immured
Are rent from bliss and singed by loss’s fire:
Like one condemned to death, who waits,
Deplores his fate, but lately solace meets,
Is given word that soon he will be freed,
But rashly slain when falls the fated date.

Pray God my thoughts were rendered dead,
My life elapsed in listless sleep;
Wretched is he whose recreant musings reap
The fruits of languor in his rival’s stead;
Whose dreams, when he for succor pleads
And cries for venom’s bitter taste
Are like a foolish mother’s haste
His ruinous vagaries to heed.

Better were to suffer pain
Than add a modicum of bliss
To the anguish in my mind’s abyss.
For when the thought of cheer has fled again,
My joy perforce to torment turns,
As a sick man’s craving something sweet
Makes every meal a joyless deceit,
Short solace is by doubled sorrow spurned;

Or like the hermit long estranged
From home and from his erstwhile friends,
Convinced his plaints have met their end,
Then finds his memories unchanged
When chance brings one across his way
Who breathes new life in pleasures passed
Then leaves, and joy cannot hold fast;
For sorrow heeds the call when good abates.


Wise woman, when love is old and grey
Absence eats into it like a worm
If constancy does not hold firm,
Ignoring what the envious say.


The Exhaustion of the Poetic Lexicon

Every language has words that determine its poetry; words in one language are possessed of a poetic efficiency that they lack in another. Think of the sonority of morte: in Italian it carries great weight, for one thing the syllables are similar to notte, the words are almost synonyms… In part, certain words determine thematics, while others have ceased to be poetic for the abuse they have undergone; “los labios rojos,” for example, no longer functions poetically, now it has to be said a different way. There are many words in Catalan from the XV century that have not aged, that have been preserved in their disuse…

Thus Pere Gimferrer in a recent interview. It is true that words need to be left in peace to be adequate for poetry; if we think of the ideas of making-strange, making new, of the uneven Venetian pavers in Proust that symbolize those ripples in the tranquil effluence of time through which poetic awareness comes into flower, we see that the inappositeness thereto of any word that has been too much handled, the coarse textures or irregularities of which have been smoothed away by too many hands. Cyril Connolly remarks that in the age of Dryden, there was really no such thing as bad English writing; the act of putting words to paper was too new, nothing had yet been corrupted.

I wonder is the caducity of words always the outcome of mendacity. When Gimferrer refers to the poetic concept of “red lips,” he is speaking of something that gained its force as a departure from the strictly real; red lips are a striking image to the extent that the color of lips is not red, by use of this adjective they are made to stand out like Derain’s blue mountains or scarlet trees. But at the point at which people forget what color lips actually are, the word “red” becomes shorthand for the supposed color of a detail in nature that readers and writers have ceased to really look at; the cliché has supplanted the reality in the collective imagination. The words ruined by Business English are characterized generally by patent dishonesty (what large company has not at various times described its customers, its shareholders, its employees, its employees’ well-being, etc. as its “number-one priority”?) or by a kind of brute augmentation that is the linguistic equivalent of plastic surgery, hiding the paucity of thought behind syllabic superfluity: proactive for active, reference for refer, orientate (once a charming word meaning “to face the orient”) for orient, operationalize for use… Borges, commenting on Jorge Manrique, praises the power of the simplest words and metaphors, which he claims have greater immunity to such destruction; I am not sure if he is right.

The poetic possibilities of a language are defined in part by what ambits remain untouched by this progressive degradation. Anyone who reads in various languages can attest to the perdurant vitality of themes in one language that have been poetically exhausted in others. “I would die for you,” “I would walk to the ends of the earth for you,” and so on can no longer be said in English because the rank dishonesty with which they infest popular culture has left them toothless, but one can imagine a less meretricious culture in which they might still hold force. Gimferrer complains that Castilian is losing “poetic efficiency” from overuse, and has advocated for Catalan as a “prestige tongue,” perhaps in the hopes that a marginal but ceremonial status will preserve it from lyrical enervation.

Of course languages can be renewed as well. Acquaintances have always shown themselves perplexed by my interest in rap music, and generally consider it a conceit, a kind of reverse dandyism or provocation. That is absurd. For me English-language poetry in general, though I am not an expert, has become so withered and bound up in packaged arrogance and literary posturing –– this without mentioning its entrenchment in a system of privileges and perquisites dispensed on the basis of social placement, particularly in the academic realm, and hence, in the final analysis, on class –– that it inspires distaste rather than interest.

Rap has continued to engage, with the full battery of poetic resources, a sphere of authentic, lived concerns –– however truncated or ignoble they may be –– at a time when the majority of poets have lost all relation to their real longings and true natures, whether as social or spiritual beings. In addition, the best rappers have emphasized the fundamental importance of assonance, alliteration, variable stresses, and internal rhyme to English poetry –– the more naturally poetic elements of the language, as against a fixation on Italianate and Provencal forms grafted onto a tongue that diverged drastically from both its Germanic and Latinate progenitors. However distasteful many listeners may find rap to be, there is a force in its words and their employment that lies worlds apart from the soggy linguistic attenuation of a great deal of modern English poetry and popular song.

On a different note, Hölderlin describes the Ideal as the subjective ground of poetry in his (for me) very difficult essay Über die Verfahrungsweise des poetischen Geistes. I wonder if Proust has something similar in mind when he speaks of the spiritual obligations that impend upon us as though from another world when he describes the death of Bergotte:

Toutes ces obligations, qui n’ont pas leur sanction dans la vie présente, semblent appartenir à un monde différent, fondé sur la bonté, le scrupule, le sacrifice, un monde entièrement différent de celui-ci, et dont nous sortons pour naître à cette terre, avant peut-être d’y retourner revivre sous l’empire de ces lois inconnues auxquelles nous avons obéi parce que nous en portions l’enseignement en nous, sans savoir qui les y avait tracées – ces lois dont tout travail profond de l’intelligence nous rapproche et qui sont invisibles seulement – et encore ! – pour les sots.