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The Portrait of Sicily's Most Beautiful Woman

Posted by Suzanne on 25 Jul 2014



To behold the sensuality and softness of  Giovanni Boldini's 2.2 metre high portrait, dated 1924, of “Sicily’s most beautiful woman," Donna Franca Florio, in the warm light of the Tyrrhenian sea on the ground level of one of Palermo’s splendid Belle Epoque inspired buildings - Grand Hotel Villa Igiea is a pleasure and its story fascinating.


The Story

A portrait of a beautiful, Sicilian noble woman; painted, rejected and repainted in the first years of the 1900s, then returned to its initial provocativeness in the mid- 1920s and sold twice under the hammer in New York auction houses; Christies and Sotheby’s.

And there is also the hint that the artist, Boldini, actually painted two full length portraits of the beautiful Donna Franca Florio at the request of her industrialist husband, Don Ignazio Florio in the first two years of the 1900s due to Don Ignazio’s displeasure with the first.


The Main Characters

The main characters of the story are; one of Italy’s wealthiest men at the turn of the 20th century Sicilian industrialist Don Ignazio Florio, his beautiful Sicilian wife Donna Franca, a Boldini art collecting member of the illustrious Rothschilds, a Grand Sicilian Hotel by the Tyrrhenian Sea owned by Ignazio Florio and Giovanni Boldini.

Sotheby’s 2005 catalogue notes, Boldini was “the portraitist of choice for a very cosmopolitan social set centered on Paris but encompassing  South American diplomats, American socialites, and a wide swathe of Europe’s most beautiful and admired women".

He loved to paint the most beautiful women and his work was fuelled by his desire to push, says Sotheby’s 2005 Catalogue Notes, “the edges of the past century’s notions of decorum".

He did exactly this in the Sicilian spring of 1901, when he was invited to Villa Olivuzza, the immense estate of Ignazio Florio and the centre of Palermo’s extravagant Belle Epoque society, to paint the most beautiful Sicilian woman of the time.

He was commissioned by Don Ignazio Florio, to portray his wife, Donna Franca Florio as “The Queen of Palermo".


The Beauty

Donna Franca's beauty was revered by many – from the Kaiser of Germany who reportedly called her “the star of Italy” to the poet Gabriele Annunzio who is said to have called her “the one".

She was, according to all reports, the most beautiful and the most admired woman of Palermo’s modern Belle Epoque society when Northern European royals and aristocrats would descend upon Palermo to be part of an extravagant fashionable society where many of the city’s elaborate palaces were still inhabited by entire noble families or industrialists like the Florios and the Whitakers.


The Rejection

Boldini’s initial, beautifully provocative version, painted in 1901 (which is what is seen in the portrait dated 1924 now in the room “The Donna Franca Restaurant” in The Grand Hotel Villa Igiea) was, as Sotheby’s say, not approved of by Don Ignazio. He reportedly found it risqué and “unnatural and unreal” looking and demanded that Boldini lengthen the dress and add full sleeves with wide black lace.

Once Boldini had reworked the painting to oblige his wealthy commissioner’s discontent it was exhibited at the 1903 Venice Biennial. It remained like this until the mid - 1920s when, with the demise and ruin of the Florio family’s wealth, Baron Maurice de Rothschild, a great admirer and collector of Boldini’s work acquired it.

Related: Things Not To Miss In Palermo Part 1



The Restoration

Rothschild, Sotheby’s noted, engaged Boldini to restore it to his original sensual version and the artist signed it in the left hand corner 1924. The alluring soft face and neck, the dropped shoulder straps, the wide open neckline, the bare slender arms and legs were reinstated and the carefree freedom and modernity of the Belle Epoque was restored.

It now stands framed in painted gold, in a room and restaurant named after her, La Sala Donna Franca Florio in the Grand Hotel Villa Igiea on the sea, at Aqucasanta, Palermo – purchased in New York at Sotheby’s October 2005 19th Century European Art Sale for nearly $US 1million by the Hotel group which owned Hotel Villa Igiea.


Donna Franca Florio returns to Palermo

When the painting was ceremoniously unveiled at Hotel Villa Igiea in 2006, after being absent from Palermo for decades it was reported by La Repubblica newspaper that Donna Franca was home and that the painting was Boldini’s initial version and that when Ignazio Florio rejected it in 1901 Boldini painted a new one; the more demure one in black lace, which has just apparently disappeared.

As Sotheby’s state, “Boldini’s portrait of Donna Franca Florio is a remarkably well documented example of the perils facing a portraitist of the wealthy".

Without a doubt, Boldini re worked the 1903 demure version, demanded by Don Ignazio Florio, and in the mid- 20s and at the request of art collector and banker Maurice de Rothschild it was restored to its initial sensuality; pushing “the edges of decorum".




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