Biog­ra­phy/so­ci­ety

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The Un­fin­ished Palazzo

Ju­dith Mack­rell (Thames & Hud­son, £19.95)

A work of art on a colos­sal scale, the city of Venice has cap­ti­vated count­less gen­er­a­tions of painters, po­ets and mu­si­cians. Few of those to have fallen un­der its spell can have been more fas­ci­nat­ing than the three women who, one af­ter the other, es­tab­lished them­selves in the same bizarre build­ing on the Grand Canal.

The Palazzo Ve­nier dei Leoni —‘the ‘un­fin­ished palace’—was but one storey high; the no­ble fam­ily who com­mis­sioned it were forced to aban­don the project and the grandiose scheme they had en­vis­aged at the out­set was never com­pleted. Idiosyn­cratic in the ex­treme, the Clas­si­cal bun­ga­low wasn’t beau­ti­ful, but it was unique. Just as sin­gu­lar were the suc­ces­sive in­hab­i­tants it at­tracted. Luisa Casati, Doris Castlerosse and Peggy Guggen­heim—ital­ian, English and Amer­i­can re­spec­tively—were not artists in the lit­eral sense of the word. what can­not be de­nied is that they each per­fected a craft more in­tan­gi­ble than that of Canaletto: the art of liv­ing well —or at least no­to­ri­ously.

In a sense, each mem­ber of the tri­umvi­rate chron­i­cled in this book per­son­i­fied a par­tic­u­lar facet of 20th-cen­tury high so­ci­ety. Casati was one of a kind: a born ex­hi­bi­tion­ist whose deca­dent en­ter­tain­ments and out­ra­geous per­sonal style al­ter­nately elec­tri­fied and scan­dalised the Belle Epoque. Dur­ing the late 1930s, Lady Castlerosse —an ar­riv­iste who might have been con­jured by the pen of Noël Coward—moved into the ren­o­vated palazzo for all too brief a spell; a promis­ing ca­reer as a lead­ing in­ter­na­tional hostess was cru­elly cut short by the out­break of the Sec­ond world war.

She was fol­lowed in her turn by Peggy Guggen­heim, the last of the so-called ‘fe­male do­ges’ of Venice, who trans­formed the prop­erty into a show­case for her spec­tac­u­lar col­lec­tion of Mod­ern and Sur­re­al­ist art­works and her­self into an icon of the

avant garde.

Port­man­teau bi­ogra­phies re­quire care­ful cal­i­bra­tion to en­sure that no one sub­ject is indulged at the ex­pense of the oth­ers. Thank­fully, Ju­dith Mack­rell han­dles a po­ten­tially tricky task with con­sum­mate skill. Ef­fort­lessly evok­ing the spir­its of three ex­tra­or­di­nary women, she also cap­tures the mag­i­cal at­mos­phere of the house and city they each called home. Martin Wil­liams

Peggy Guggen­heim re­laxes on the Palazzo Ve­nier dei Leoni

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