The Sunday Magazine

A century before Meghan and Harry, this Italian noble family sought refuge in B.C. — and stayed

The story of a royal couple giving up their titles, privilege and castle has caused seismic reactions around the world. A little over 100 years ago, an Italian noble family landed in a small town in British Columbia, the history of which is still coming to light. 

The legend of the noble and eccentric Caetanis who arrived in Vernon in 1921 is still being uncovered today

Family portrait of Sveva Caetani, Ofelia Fabiani and Leone Caetani, taken in 1921, shortly before the family's departure for Canada. (Vernon Museum and Archives)

The story of a royal couple giving up their titles, privilege and castle has caused seismic reactions around the world. A little over 100 years ago, an Italian noble family landed in a small town in British Columbia, the history of which is still coming to light. 

The Caetanis were a noble class of aristocrats who fled Italy during the rise of fascism. 

"The story itself is fascinating. It's like a fairy tale," said Susan Brandoli, executive director of the Caetani Cultural Centre in Vernon, B.C.

"It's this rise and fall of a very wealthy family and it's about the princess being locked away by the mother."

The former home of Sveva Caetani in Vernon, B.C. (Caetani Cultural Centre)

The story begins with Leone Caetani, who carried the titles Duke of Sermoneta and Prince of Teano. He was a renowned scholar, radical socialist and parliamentarian. 

With the rise of fascism in Italy, Leone Caetani moved his family to British Columbia in 1921. He was joined by his mistress Ofelia Fabiani, their three-year-old daughter Sveva and a dutiful paid companion from Denmark, Inger-Marie Jüül.

An enviable life

Laisha Rosnau is a Vernon-based author and poet whose novel Little Fortress, released last fall, reimagines the Caetani family's history.

"I cannot imagine what it would have been like to disembark at the train station in Vernon. I mean I can't imagine what it would be like now to move from Rome to Vernon, B.C., let alone in 1921," she said. 

Laisha Rosnau is the author of the novel Little Fortress (Jennifer Chrumka/CBC)

For more than a decade, the Caetanis lived an enviable international life with Vernon as a home base. The family travelled to Europe and New York City, where they'd rent an entire floor of the Ritz-Carlton. 

Ofelia Fabiani kept up personal correspondence with Coco Chanel's dressmakers and would visit the runways in Paris during the spring fashion season.

Things took a drastic turn when Leone died of cancer on Christmas day in 1935. 

Unable to cope with the loss, Ofelia Fabiani suffered a breakdown. She never left the property in Vernon again.

For 25 years, the three women endured a period of self-inflicted seclusion.

Following the death of her father, Sveva Caetani lived in seclusion with her mother Ofelia Fabiani and their companion Inger-Marie Jüül. (Heidi Thompson)

Stories that never leave us

Rumours of the women "trapped in the house" circulated widely in Vernon. Rosnau grew up near the Caetani house. Despite moving away for university, the story of the three women followed her.

"I just carried the story around with me, and the story never, never left me. I think it's similar to a lot of people who hear these women's stories, that they never leave us," said Rosnau. 

Ofelia Fabiani's lifelong companion Inger-Marie Jüül in 1921. (Vernon Museum and Archives)

Rosnau eventually settled in Vernon with a family of her own and began to research the Caetani story in earnest.

Her fascination wasn't with mother or daughter, but with Jüül. 

"I wondered who was this woman who also went into seclusion for 25 years. Where did she come from? How did she get hooked up with this very eccentric royal family? And what about her made her choose this as well?" said Rosnau.

Rosnau spent years researching in the Vernon Museum and Archives, pouring through dozens of file boxes and folders.

Hidden amidst medical records and bank statements she uncovered letters to the family from Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and Louis Vuitton. 

"That's the family [Sveva] came from," Brandoli said.

Letter to Sveva Caetani from Albert Einstein found in the Vernon Museum and Archives. (Jennifer Chrumka/CBC)

"They were a family of enormous influence in Italy for literally a millennium. And this was something that people in [Vernon] kind of knew a little bit here, but I don't think people realize the extent of it."

A second chance at living

Sveva Caetani's life changed drastically once more, with the death of her mother in 1960. 

"When [Sveva's] mother died, she got a second chance at living her life," said Brandoli.

"She was in her early 40s and she took it. 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."

A painting by Sveva Caetani as part of her series Recapitulation. (Expressive Art Workshops)

Her artwork is an astounding series of 53 large watercolour paintings — inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy — called Recapitulation

"It really does show how resilient the human spirit can be, that she came out of this situation and she found herself in reduced circumstances … she pulled herself up and started her journey again," said Brandoli. 

Before she died, Sveva Caetani hosted arts events on the property, setting in motion a legacy of support for the artistic community.

Today, the Caetani house is a cultural centre, providing a venue for artists from around the world.

Pictured left: Susan Brandoli, executive director of the Caetani Cultural Centre. Pictured right: Ofelia Fabiani's bedroom in the Caetani Cultural Centre, available for artists as part of a residency program. (Jennifer Chrumka/CBC)

It's where Rosnau finished her novel, renting out Ofelia Fabiani's bedroom to make the final copy edits.

"So often when I'm here in the [Caetani] house either writing my own or more often going to various cultural events ... I think of Sveva and how happy she would be, how absolutely delighted she would be," said  Rosnau.

"That this place that she felt trapped and was quite literally trapped, has now become this open welcoming place for artists of all kinds."

Written and produced by Jennifer Chrumka.


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