by Carmelina Fiorentino | photos Archivio F. Alvarez de Toledo
Contessa Cerio. That’s how she was introduced to me at the end of the 1980s, in the Centro Caprense Library. Her tall, slender figure, enveloped in a flowing cream-coloured silk skirt, with a ribbon made from the same silk on her straw hat and a stick with a jewelled handle, made me think straight away that that combination of refinement, aloofness and elegance must be a family trait: for that’s how the oldest Capri inhabitants remember her father Edwin.
Laetitia was born in Buenos Aires in 1908 to Edwin and Helena Hosmann, a photographer that Edwin had met in Argentina when he was working on plans for the Transandine railway for Alfred Krupp. She was very like her mother: although her complexion and hair were lighter than the “dark” Helena, her facial features strongly resembled her mother’s. She began painting and drawing as a child, under the attentive and affectionate guidance of the artists in the family, and went on to perfect her talents attending the Accademia d’Arte in Florence, taking private lessons from the well-known artist Baccio Maria Bacci, and finally attending the Art Students League in New York, as an adult.
In 1932, Laetitia married Ramiro Alvarez de Toledo, the charming scion of an ancient Neapolitan family; the ceremony was held in the Salone of Palazzo Cerio, a remarkable, monumental place that preserves the memories of 700 years of celebrations and events, including royal ones. Beatrice and Fernando, the two children from their marriage, were lucky enough to have a mother who read them “home-made” fairy stories. Laetitia invented stories and, above all, illustrated them with delicate drawings of fantastic animals that grew and transformed with the turning of the pages. In Argentina, where she lived with the children during the 1940s, she was the costume designer for Pampa Film and she also designed outfits for fashion magazines.
She then went through a difficult period: the death of her beloved little Beatrice and, later, her divorce, had a profound effect on Laetitia’s mind and spirit. The affection of her friends and the protection of her earthly guardian angel, Aunt Mabel – the wife of Giorgio Cerio – enabled Laetitia to recover her strength and vitality, thanks also to her beautiful retreat: Capri.
Although the island had always played an important part in her life, from 1948 – the year in which she moved there with Fernando – Capri became even more important to her. The landscape, the colors and the characters that she came across on the island were fundamental to her becoming established as an international artist, but also to her personality. Between her studio at La Certosella – the villa in Via Tragara that her father had given her (later turned into a hotel) – and New York, Laetitia painted and sketched; she organized and arranged personal and collective exhibitions in different European cities, the USA and on Capri, in the free art room of the Centro Caprense. This was a very fertile period, artistically speaking. She designed wallpaper and fabrics for various German companies, but although this was very well-remunerated, it was never her favourite activity.
Every day, summer and winter, she would go to La Canzone del Mare for a swim. It was here that she made friends with the designer Emilio Pucci – who had opened a boutique in the enchanting bay of Marina Piccola – and she began collaborating with his fashion house. Laetitia’s important friendships were not only with designers: Gracie Fields, Graham Greene, Jorge Luis Borges, Piero Gadda Conti, Francis Steegmuller and his wife Shirley Hazzard were among the Italian and foreign intellectuals who filled Laetitia’s ‘Album of friends’, along with her own spirit and intellect.
In 1962, Donna Laetitia took over as president of the Centro Caprense Ignazio Cerio after the death of its founder and president, her father Edwin Cerio, had left the non-profit organization without a director. She had a weighty cultural, artistic and environmental legacy. Starting with her grandfather Ignazio, a well-respected doctor and modern patron of the culture and history of the island, then her father Edwin, naval engineer, humorous writer, tutelary deity of Capri and, for a short period, mayor of the island, and finally Laetitia’s aunt, Mabel Norman, all contributed to that legacy to different extents and in different ways, including through their various roles in setting up and running the Centro Caprense Ignazio Cerio non-profit organization from 1947 onwards.
Leafing through the pages of the Libro Madre of the Centro Caprense, a set of books in which Laetitia collected invitations, photos, reviews of events as well as photos of paintings featuring the island and of characters who visited the island, the Centre and the Ca’ del Sole (her house and studio at the time), is like being catapulted back in time; but above all it helps us understand that this meticulous quality was not only typical of the Contessa who sketched or embroidered in petit point but also of the President of the Centro Caprense.
Donna Laetitia added her own artistic touch to the Centre’s activities. All the arts found expression in the rooms of the Centro Caprense during those thirty-five years, and at levels of variety and quality rarely achieved on the island. The attention to music, dance, painting, and theatre brought great maestros, fine local artists, and experimental theatre into the rooms at the Centre, and all these events were well-attended by the public. The island’s landscape and cultural heritage were not neglected either: in addition to hosting the headquarters of Italia Nostra, Laetitia organized conferences in archaeology, history and natural sciences that would undoubtedly have made Ignazio and Edwin proud of their descendant and her commitment to “their” Centro Caprense.
She never failed to make the most of local skills and industry, too: Mare Moda Capri, exhibitions of Campania handicrafts and Capri artists were just some of the occasions that earned the Centro Caprense and Laetitia – the elegant and austere contessa who, through her disposition, friendships and ancestry might appear somewhat aloof from the people – the esteem and gratitude of her co-citizens.
Laetitia never left the island again. Since 1997 she has been at rest on Capri, with her loved ones, halfway between the Catholic and Non-Catholic cemeteries. And above all she lives on in the room dedicated to her at the Centro Caprense: her books, her archive, her objects, and paintings speak of her as if she were sitting there, on her high stool in front of the two-sided easel belonging to Aunt Mabel, admiring the colors of Monte Solaro as she speaks to us.
A multicolored madhouse. Zoo in the piazza. That was the title of the exhibition of drawings held in 1952 at the Canzone del Mare. Laetitia’s penetrating gaze captured the eccentricity, originality and comic quality of the habitués of the piazza, that “multi-colored madhouse”, as she liked to call it; her pen then transformed them into fantasy animals or “human bodies with animal heads” as Edwin suggested. Those drawings show that the similarities between the father and daughter were not simply in their personalities: the father used his writing pen, the daughter her sketching pen and brush. It was not simply a question of different tools, but of weapons! The descriptions – often parodies – sharp yet vivid, humorous but remarkably true, of people and personalities that Edwin created in his books, lent themselves very well to producing the “heirs” that appeared in Laetitia’s Indian ink drawings. “I have the bad habit of creating the human in flora, while my daughter finds the animal in the human… family quirks,” Edwin wrote in his review of the exhibition.