Peggy Guggenheim and the ghosts of the unfinished palazzo
Peggy Guggenheim wasn’t the first woman to own Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, the distinctive building that now houses her art collection. The two who preceded her — Marchesa Luisa Casati and Lady Doris Castlerosse — were equally colourful
On the eastern stretch of the Grand Canal, as it widens out towards the lagoon, the Venetian waterfront becomes a riotous profusion of colours and styles. From Gothic palazzos decorated with mosaic and latticed stone to grandly classical façades and a listing assortment of dusky stucco villas, an entire history of architectural invention is on display.
There is one building, however, that stands out for its unusual restraint. The Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, home of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, is a long, low structure, one storey high. Its lines are so clean and its walls so gleamingly white that many visitors assume it must have been built during the last century. Yet the palazzo has a past as richly chequered as most of its neighbours, dating back to 1749 when plans were drawn up for its construction.
The Venier family, who commissioned it, ranked among Venice’s most powerful dynasties, and their new palazzo — five storeys high and strutting with pillars and pediments — was intended as a monument to the family name. Yet as work began around 1751, it came to an abrupt halt.
It is possible that the builders failed to lay foundations deep enough to support the palazzo’s weight, but equally likely that construction was brought to a standstill by a decline in the family’s fortunes or their failure to produce a new generation of male heirs — and then, before work could be restarted, Napoleon invaded the city.
Whatever the cause, the Venier palazzo was left at a dwarfsh approximation of its intended size. Over the years, as it was sold off to different owners, deterioration set in. Ivy covered the walls, sections of the roof began to cave in, and the basement was converted into a cheap boarding house.
It became known in the neighbourhood as the palazzo non finito — the unfinished palace — and it might have been demolished, excised from history, but for the three women who came to inhabit it during the 20th century. They did so with a style and a sense of female entitlement unimaginable to its original, male owners.
The first of the trio was Luisa Casati, who came to the palazzo in 1910. Luisa was one of the wealthiest women in Italy, having inherited her father’s industrial fortune. As the wife of the Marchese Camillo Casati, she was allied to the highest ranks of Italian nobility. Yet after falling under the spell of the notorious writer and aesthete Gabriele D’Annunzio, Luisa had turned her back on conventional society and, with a passion that bordered on profound eccentricity, vowed to turn her life into a work of art.
Venice was to be her theatre, the romantically derelict Venier palazzo her stage. Luisa hired an army of workmen to transform the interior into a dazzle of marble, glass and gold, but she was determined to retain the building’s dirty, overgrown and crumbling exterior.
Further evidence of Luisa’s maverick taste was revealed in the menagerie of pets that she began to gather around her — parrots, monkeys, snakes and peacocks, plus a flock of albino blackbirds that she would dye different colours to suit her mood. Most beloved of these pets was the elegantly spotted cheetah that accompanied her everywhere.
Like a Lady Gaga of the early 20th century, Luisa disdained conventional vanity, attending the opera in a dress of swan’s down that moulted as she moved
Crowds would gather to stare as they floated about together in a gondola or processed through the Piazza San Marco, the cheetah kept under control by a tall manservant, Luisa dressed in costumes — many of them created for her by the Ballets Russes designer Léon Bakst — that ranged from a commedia dell’arte harlequin to a Persian princess.
Luisa spent recklessly and, beyond the sums she lavished on her wardrobe, she hosted parties of astounding extravagance. Many were held at the palazzo, but the one that entered Venetian folklore was the 18th-century costume ball for which Luisa took over the whole of Piazza San Marco, hiring 200 black servants, all dressed by Bakst, to hold back the watching public.
As Luisa turned her daily life into a performance she commissioned artists to record her progress, amassing a portrait gallery that included photographs by Man Ray, paintings by Kees van Dongen and Augustus John, and a bust sculpted by Jacob Epstein.
After the war, her area of operation expanded to include Paris, and her costumes became still more extreme. Like a Lady Gaga of the early 20th century, she disdained conventional vanity, attending the opera in a dress of swan’s down that moulted as she moved, or with fresh chicken’s blood dripping down one arm. She went to parties dressed as Medusa, wearing a headdress of snakes, or as Lady Macbeth with a waxen bloodstained hand attached to her throat.
But Luisa’s money was finite, and in 1924 she was forced to relinquish the palazzo. Twelve years later it was acquired by Lady Doris Castlerosse, a London socialite with plans to transform the eccentric ruin into a smart cosmopolitan salon.
Doris came from a background far less grand than Luisa’s, but she was beautiful, witty and sexually adventurous, and, having slept her way through English society, she fulfilled her ambition to marry a lord. That marriage was turbulent, however, and Doris was unwilling to lose her independence.
During the early 1930s, her long list of lovers included Cecil Beaton and Winston Churchill, and as she approached middle age and her reputation began to sour, she looked to Venice as a city where she might relaunch herself.
Her palazzo refurbished to a luxurious gloss, Doris embarked on what she imagined would be a new career as a Venetian salonnière. Today, interest in Doris has been revived by the celebrity of her great-niece, the model Cara Delevingne. But back in the late 1930s Doris needed no help in asserting herself: during her first summer in Venice, the parties she hosted numbered the young Prince Philip and the film star Douglas Fairbanks among the guests.
War put an end to the revelry, however, and also to Doris’s life — she took an accidental overdose of sleeping pills in 1942. The palazzo was thus on the market again when Peggy Guggenheim came to Venice from New York in the hope of reinventing her own troubled life.
By 1948, Peggy had made a name for herself as an intrepid, even visionary collector of modern art. But the professional, male-dominated art world had always been inclined to belittle her achievements, and her recently published memoir, with its colourful admissions of her promiscuous love affairs, had further undermined her reputation.
Venice seemed to Peggy a more welcoming, forgiving place, and she would settle at the Venier palazzo for the rest of her life, her priceless artworks displayed amid a muddle of dogs and domestic possessions. These works were on view to the public for limited hours, but essentially Peggy’s collection remained a private one, with friends and acquaintances arriving from around the world to enjoy the intimate setting: the young poet Gregory Corso recalled an entrancing visit that involved ‘wild alone ball dancing’ with Peggy ‘through Picassos and Arps and Ernsts’.
If the art was a magnet, so was Peggy herself. During her 30 years in Venice, she grew into a kind of grande-dame eminence. Guests at her palazzo might dine with Truman Capote, Jean Cocteau, Igor Stravinsky or Henry Moore; and among Venetian locals, she acquired a wicked notoriety — wearing her signature outsized jazzy sunglasses as she floated about in her gondola, and sunbathing naked on her roof in hot weather.
After Peggy’s death, her collection was taken over by the Guggenheim Foundation, her palazzo transformed into a modern museum with cool, white interiors. Yet, like everywhere in Venice, the palazzo remains ghosted by its past.
Out on the terrace, where the waters of the canal slip by, it’s easy to imagine Luisa, Doris or Peggy as they might once have stood there, preparing to board a gondola or welcome guests to a party, or simply gazing out at the view — virtually the same view of water, sky and old stone that the Veniers had commanded two centuries earlier when they’d imagined their palazzo rising up to dominate the canal.
Judith Mackrell’s book The Unfinished Palazzo — Life, Love and Art in Venice is published by Thames & Hudson
This article was first published in Christie’s Magazine and online in May 2017