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When I see Mrs Guggenheim sunbathing on the roof,
I know the spring has come.
Document Outof This Century by Peggy Guggenheim
The daughter of a wealthy New York family, Peggy Guggenheim moved to Europe in 1920 and fell in with an avant garde circle of artists and writers. After her father died on the Titanic, she inherited a small fortune at 21, and embarked on a lifelong pursuit as a collector and patron of modern art. The first to give Jackson Pollock an exhibition, she championed Piet Mondrian, Alberto Giacometti, Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dalí to name just a few. In this extract from her memoirs, she describes the discovery of her beloved palazzo on Venice’s Grand Canal, where “the Mistress of Modernism” came to live in the last years of her life, among her precious collection.
Finally, in 1949, Flavia Paulon, secretary of Count Zorzi, found me a lovely abode. It was an unfinished palace on the Grand Canal, started in 1748 by the Veniers, a famous Venetian family who had given two doges to Venice and who were alleged to have kept lions in their garden. The front of the palace bore 18 lions’ heads, which may be the reason for the name given to it: Venier dei Leoni. It stands opposite the Prefettura, the palace of the prefect of the Veneto region.
The palace was all built in white stone and covered with vines: “all” is saying a lot, as the building never exceeded one floor, and in Venice is called the “palazzo non compiuto,” the “unfinished palace.” It had the widest space of any palace on the Grand Canal, and also had the advantage of not being regarded as a national monument, which things are sacred in Venice and cannot be altered. It was therefore perfect for the pictures. At the front entrance there was a lovely courtyard with steps going down to the
Grand Canal, and at the back one of the largest gardens in Venice, with very old trees. The top of the palace formed a flat roof, perfect for sunbathing. I naturally took advantage of this, but was rather worried about the reaction of the prefect, my vis-à-vis. However, he merely said, “when I see Mrs Guggenheim sunbathing on the roof, I know the spring has come.”
Signore Paulon got her husband to do up the place for me. Actually, it was not in very bad shape, though it had changed tenants often since 1938. Before that, in 1910, Luisa, Marchesa Casati, a poetess, had lived in one of the wings, giving fantastic Diaghilev parties and keeping leopards instead of lions in the garden. In 1938, the Viscountess Castlerosse bought the house and spent a fortune doing over what was then practically a ruin. (I believe the Marchesa Casati barely had a roof over her head.) Lady Castlerosse installed six marble bathrooms and beautiful mosaic floors. Her taste was not the same as mine, and I had to scrape off all the Liberty stucchi from the walls. After the first year, Lady Castlerosse lent the palace to Douglas Fairbanks Jr, and then three armies of occupation, German, British and American, lived in it in turn.
In the Autumn of 1949, I made an exhibition of more or less recent sculpture in the garden. We exhibited an Arp, a Brancusi, a Calder mobile, three Giacomettis, a Lipchitz, a Moore, a Pevsner, a David Hare, a Mirko, a Consagra, a Salvatore and two Vianis. One of my Giacometti statues got stopped at customs in Padua on its way from Milan. We went to fetch it in my open car. It was a beautiful thin figure without a head. We brought her back to Venice along the autostrada at great speed, and everyone who saw her must