Turandot and the fantastic East of Puccini, Chini and Caramba

Italiano (Italian)

22 May – 21 November 2021
Museo del Tessuto, via Puccetti 3, Prato


The Museo del Tessuto Foundation’s new exhibition is a tribute to the history of opera and art from the first twenty years of the twentieth century, a time when the phenomenon of Orientalism pervaded the artistic, literary and musical scene.

Turandot and the Fantastic East by Puccini, Chini and Caramba is the result of extensive, meticulous research carried out by the Museum after the extraordinary discovery of a nucleus of costumes and stage jewellery dating back to the world premiere of Puccini’s Turandot, from the private wardrobe of the great Prato-born soprano, Iva Pacetti.

This unprecedented, profoundly evocative, multidisciplinary and wide-ranging exhibition is the result of a collaboration between highly prestigious public and private Italian institutions. They contributed to this ambitious project in various ways, reconstructing the events that led to the great Tuscan composer, Giacomo Puccini, selecting the scenographic genius of Galileo Chini to create the staging and set designs for Turandot, which premiered at Teatro alla Scala on 25 April 1926, directed by Arturo Toscanini.

The exhibition co-organiser is the Museum System of the University of Florence, of which the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology houses a collection of over 600 eastern relics. Galileo Chini, a great exponent of Italian Liberty style, brought these artefacts back when he returned from his travels in Siam in 1913. He personally donated the collection to the Florentine museum in 1950.

Additional collaborators include the Ricordi Historical Archive (Milan), which houses an immense documentary heritage on the history and aesthetics of opera in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and Fondazione Giacomo Puccini (Lucca), created precisely to promote and enhance Puccini’s immense artistic heritage.

Furthermore, there are loans from Museo Teatrale alla Scala and the Teatro alla Scala Historical Documental Archive, the Uffizi Galleries, the Gallery of Modern Art of Palazzo Pitti, Sartoria Devalle in Turin, the Corbella Archive, the Society of Fine Arts in Viareggio and numerous private lenders.

Galileo Chini. Large square of the palace – Sketch for the Turandot scenography
Act II, scene II (fourth version, definitive), 1924. Milan, Archivio Storico Ricordi, ICON000206

Galileo Chini. The exterior of the Imperial Palace – Sketch for the scenography of the Turandot, Act III scene II (fourth version, definitive), 1926. Milan, Archivio Storico Ricordi, ICON000208


It all began in the early months of 2018 when the Museum received a proposal to acquire a mysterious trunk containing assorted material from the wardrobe of the Prato-born soprano, Iva Pacetti, which had inexplicably vanished for decades.

The research conducted by the museum curator, Daniela Degl’Innocenti, enabled the identification of two costumes and two pieces of stage jewellery. The creations were designed and produced by the Teatro alla Scala’s costume designer, Luigi Sapelli (aka Caramba), for the opera’s world premiere and worn by Rosa Raisa, the first soprano in history to interpret the role of the ‘Ice Princess’.

The iconographic evidence left no doubts: these were not generic costumes from the Art Déco era; they were pieces from the Teatro alla Scala premiere of Turandot, which had been considered irretrievably lost for some time.

Hence the idea to create an exhibition reconstructing the events that led to the design of these costumes, contextualised in the genesis of the opera and the artistic partnership established between Giacomo Puccini and his friend, the artist Galileo Chini, and their subsequent collaboration with the Teatro alla Scala’s costume designer, Caramba.

The composer was determined to entrust the depiction of the opera’s Eastern atmosphere to an artist who had first-hand experience of the East, which is how the partnership came about. In fact, Galileo Chini stayed in Siam (present-day Thailand) for three years, from 1911 to 1913, to work on the decoration of the Throne Palace of King Rama VI.

The East profoundly captivated Chini, who returned with his luggage full of hundreds of artistic artefacts of Chinese, Japanese, Siamese style and production. These items influenced his artistic production even after his stay in Siam and subsequently inspired the figurative genesis of the set designs for the opera Turandot.

China. Plate with carp, late 19th – early 20th century
Painted and glazed porcelain.
Florence, University Museum System, Seat of Anthropology and Ethnology, Galileo Chini Collection, inv. n. 31657

Two jars with lids. China, early 19th century – Glazed and glazed porcelain, gold
Florence, University Museum System, Seat of Anthropology and Ethnology, G. Chini Collection, inv. n. 31712

Theatrical mask. Thailand, early 20th century
Painted and gilded papier-mâché and plaster, bird feathers, mirror fragments;
Florence, University Museum System, Seat of Anthropology and Ethnology, G. Chini Collection, inv. n. 31568

Dragon mask. Chinese community in Thailand, late 19th century – Painted papier-mâché
Florence, University Museum System, Seat of Anthropology and Ethnology, G. Chini Collection, inv. n. 31788


The exhibition itinerary, which roughly extends over 1000 square metres, commences in the Museum’s Historical Textile Room with a selection of approximately 120 objects from the Chini Collection, on loan from the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology in Florence. As already mentioned, the Artist donated the Chini Collection to the Museum in 1950, where it remained on display until the 1970s, after which only a few of the preserved objects were on display to the public.

Therefore, the exhibition represents an opportunity to showcase one of the most precious and interesting collections belonging to the Museum System of the University of Florence.

Visitors will be able to admire textiles, theatrical costumes and masks, porcelain, musical instruments, sculptures, weapons and artefacts of Thai and Chinese production, divided into large display cases according to type. These items were a continuous source of inspiration for the Artist and became the subjects of his numerous paintings. The staging of this room creates continuous cross-references between the artefacts and the paintings, offering visitors the opportunity to immerse themselves in the version of the East experienced by the Tuscan painter.

Luigi Sapelli (aka Caramba). Turandot Costume [Act I]
Prato, Textile Museum, inv. n. 18.03.37

The exhibition continues on the upper floor with a section dedicated to the set designs for Turandot, exploring how Chini’s experience in Siam strongly influenced the evolution of his creative and stylistic path.

The canvas depicting Faith, part of the triptych The House of Gothamo, owned by the Gallery of Modern Art of Palazzo Pitti, stands out alongside artworks from private collections and previously unseen and curious finds. While the large canvas depicting Chinese New Year in Bangkok, also belonging to the Gallery, is the subject of a multimedia installation that incorporates a beautiful dragon head from the Chini Collection.

This room also contains the extraordinary final five set designs for Turandot from the Ricordi Historical Archive in Milan and two other versions from a private collection.

Luigi Sapelli (aka Caramba). Turandot Costume [Act II]
Prato, Textile Museum, inv. n. 18.03.38

Corbella firm, Milan. Crown of Turandot [act II] Prato, Textile Museum, inv. nos. 18.03.01, 18.03.02abc

Finally, after decades of oblivion, the third and last room showcases the extraordinary costumes of the opera’s protagonist. The garments are accompanied by the wonderful crown made by the Corbella company in Milan, as well as the original wig and hairpin, which were also found in Iva Pacetti’s mysterious trunk. The two costumes and stage jewellery, discovered in a very poor state of preservation, underwent substantial and complex conservation and restoration.

30 extraordinary costumes from the Sartoria Devalle archive in Turin are exhibited, alongside the pieces owned by the Museum, including primary and supporting roles, such as the Emperor, Calaf, Ping, Pong and Pang, the Mandarin, as well as the minor roles of the Priests, Handmaids, Guards, the various Citizens

These are the original costumes made for the same edition of the opera, which also initially disappeared, but then miraculously reappeared in the mid-seventies when they definitively became part of this wonderful private historical archive.

Fig. 4 Detail of the end of the sleeve before restoration
Fig. 5 Detail of the left sleeve before the restoration
Fig. 6 Detail of the left sleeve during the restoration
Fig. 7 Detail of the end of the sleeve after the restoration

The exhibition also features several original costume designs and pochoir prints created for the opera by the famous illustrator Filippo Brunelleschi, the artist Puccini initially appointed to the task, the original poster from the opera’s premiere and the voice and piano arrangement published by Casa Ricordi and illustrated with the famous image of Turandot created by Leopoldo Metlicovitz, one of the most iconic images of Italian opera of all time.

At the end of the itinerary, the Museum has dedicated a multimedia exhibition section to Iva Pacetti, the silent protagonist of our exhibition.

The exhibition is accompanied by a 240-page catalogue featuring 160 illustrations, published in Italian and English by Silvana Editoriale.

Leopoldo Metlicovitz – Manifesto for Turandot
Milan, Ricordi Historical Archive, ICON010367

Leopoldo Metlicovitz – Cover for the luxury edition of the reduction for voice and piano, 1926
Milan, Ricordi Historical Archive