Judith Mackrell traces 100 years of a Venetian palace and the interesting women who owned it. The first floor and facade was built in the 1750s but it was never finished by the family. Situated on the busy Grand Canal, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni (its full, formal name) finally became a central society location when it was inhabited by the eccentric and magnetic Luisa Casati. Enormously wealthy on her own, when she married she gained a title and the keys to the palazzo. It became a stage for her exotic parties and strange decorative impulses. 

One of Casati’s many intricate costumes. 1922.

During the interwar years, the palazzo was inhabited by Doris, Lady Castlerosse, an influential English socialite. She had the ear of Winston Churchill, and the Prince of Wales was a guest at her star-studded parties in Venice. During and after WWII, however, the lifestyle was beyond impractical. 

Doris Castlerosse standing on the steps of the palazzo. 1938.

In 1948, the heiress Peggy Guggenheim bought the property and began transforming it into the modern art gallery it is today. She lived there, among the works, until 1979. The foundation assumed control in 1980 and it has been open as a public museum ever since. 

Peggy Guggenheim in the foyer of the palazzo

Of the stories presented in the book, the first is the most fascinating. Luisa Casati was so over-the-top, so enigmatic, that it’s hard not to be intrigued by her. Lady Castlerosse’s tenancy was tame, and relatively short. Peggy Guggenheim made a lasting impact on the palazzo, but even her narrative in this book is overwhelmed by side stories of affairs and failed marriages — most of which have little to do with her art collecting or her time in Venice.

The first half, devoted to Casati, is the strongest part, and I definitely recommend it. If you’re in to the gossip of socialites, you’ll enjoy the second half of the book, too. Otherwise, skim it for the more historically important bits which are still remarkable.

My rating: 

My thanks to Thames & Hudson for the review copy.

Life, Love and Art in Venice
by Judith Mackrell
Paperback: 408 pages
Publisher: Thames & Hudson (September 11, 2018)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0500294437
ISBN-13: 978-0500294437
Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 1.3 x 7.8 inches

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