Ira von Fürstenberg has had many lives. Born in 1940, into Europe’s gilded aristocracy – her father was an Austrian prince, Prince Tassilo zu Fürstenberg, and her mother was an Agnelli, of Fiat automobiles – she married Prince Alfonso of Hohenlohe-Langenburg at 15 in a fairy-tale Venetian wedding replete with white lace and gondolas. Her first child was born when she was 16 and she was divorced by the age of 20, before briefly marrying a Brazilian industrialist. For over 20 years she was an actress and model, glamorous star of many European B-movies and president of Valentino perfumes. For the past 15 years, she has reinvented herself as a designer of unique objects inspired by her global travels, and over 80 of her precious designs will be showcased at the Museo Correr in Venice on Saturday May 26, running to Sunday June 24, in an exhibition designed by the veteran Italian opera director Pier Luigi Pizzi.
Fürstenberg works with precious materials such as rock crystal, malachite, coral, jade and rare wood, which are carved into crosses, boxes, vases, figurines and candlesticks in Madagascar. The pieces are then adorned with bronze – crafted to Fürstenberg’s designs – in the Philippines and Italy. She has a particular passion for porphyry – the dark, dense purple stone found in Egypt – which she uses to create sculptures. Her inspirations are the gilded objects of the Renaissance and Enlightenment – eras when precious natural materials, viewed as miraculous in their own right, were transformed by carving or the addition of gilded ornament into objects of wonder. As such, dragons, skulls, salamanders and elephants all feature strongly in the collection, as do the neoclassical wings of angels, added, for instance, to a black porphyry bowl. There are three price ranges for her pieces: €10,000-€20,000, €15,000-€25,000 and €20,000-€30,000.
The exhibition tracks the evolution of the artworks, which Fürstenberg says came about when she went to the aid of a friend, who, having invited a number of illustrious guests for Christmas, wanted to give them a unique gift. Fürstenberg fashioned exquisite pieces using a small collection of found objects enhanced by her own decoration. Today, she produces around 120 pieces each year. “I like to make things that no one else makes,” she says.