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
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