On the storied waterfront of Venice sits an unfinished palazzo that houses the Peggy Guggenheim collection but, in its former life, it was residence to three of the last century’s most fascinating female personalities. Drawn to the diminutive neutral palace set against ornate neighboring villas, Marchesa Luisa Casati, Lady Doris Castlerosse and Peggy Guggenheim would make the place their own, respectively. What was the charm of Palazzo Venier dei Leoni that beckoned its famous buyers?
A lofty architectural feat started by one of Venice’s most noble families in the 1750s boasted plans of five floors and a magnificent facade. Ill-fated from the beginning, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni was never completed except for the ground floor. The Venier family ran out of funds and there are rumors that the neighboring Corner family put a stop to its construction in fear that it would be as grand as their own villa. No one puts the Corners in the corner! Perhaps the most interesting tidbit about the history of the palace is the giant lion that roamed the gardens, an ode to the “leoni” in its title.
The Avant-garde Heiress
The palazzo fell into many hands in the years to come, time taking its toll on its exterior and interior, until it caught the eye of the Italian Marchesa Luisa Casati. Romanced by its neglected facade, she purchased the palace in 1910 and swiftly got to work reimagining the inside. Marble! Gold! Glass! She packed it all in and wasted no time outfitting the gardens with parrots, albino blackbirds she would dye whatever color she fancied and monkeys. Luisa’s most prized pet was a cheetah that would accompany her everywhere she went, becoming a fixture at her side at the lavish parties she would host.
This was just the tip of the iceberg of eccentricities that the Marchesa displayed. She wore outrageous costumes, shocked high society with her personal life and threw masquerade balls written about in every paper the world over. Venice was her stage, she the modern actress playing a different part every week. A patroness of the arts, Luisa played muse to notable artists such as Man Ray, Alberto Martini and Romaine Brooks. While keeping up with the tony art set, she squandered all her assets on museum-like homes, sumptuous couture and extravagant gatherings. She eventually had to sell her beloved palazzo and moved to London, evading creditors and the Fascist regime of Italy. She lived there in exile and passed away in 1957.
The English Enchantress
With the palazzo up for grabs, a leggy English blonde snapped it up in 1936 intending to make a fresh start in Venice. Lady Doris Castlerosse had earned a reputation that was much more “mistress” than “enchantress” in London, seducing the likes of Cecil Beaton and Winston Churchill while marrying her way up the ranks of society. She overhauled the palace into a glossy haven fit for a salonniere, hosting party after party that boasted guests like Prince Philip of Greece. From the palazzo’s stuccoed walls hung exquisite antique frames and sconces while guests were treated to bold black marble bathrooms. With the close proximity to Rome, Lady Doris would travel there and buy couture shoes 200 pairs at a time. She was the new social tour de force in Venice until the war broke out, ending her good time on the Grand Canal and leading to her unfortunate overdose in 1942.
The Grand Patroness
During the war, soldiers occupied the palazzo and it became a shell of the once luxurious salon Luisa and Doris had cultivated. Peggy Guggenheim found it in its graffitied condition and took a chance on the crumbling structure. It hurts my heart to report that Peggy took down all of the gorgeous decorative touches the two women had installed and pared down the palace to a light and simple interior. What we can be grateful for is her incredible collection of art on the white walls and foresight as a patroness. While reading her memoir it became evident that it was not easy to transport works in a war ravaged continent and many pieces spent time in hiding. Peggy was determined to have it all culled together in the palazzo and she eventually succeeded, giving us the modern day Peggy Guggenheim Collection.
The grande dame of Venice spent 30 years there. She rode around in a gondola donning her signature wild sunglasses, sunbathed in the nude on her rooftop (which was much lower than all the other rooftops!) and gathered likeminded visionaries at her famous dinner parties. If one attended a Peggy Guggenheim event you’d be dining with the likes of Truman Capote, Jean Cocteau and artist Arshile Gorky. If you visit Palazzo Venier dei Leoni today, soak up the view, study the art and try to image the wild creatures that once roamed the garden; Luisa, Doris and Peggy included!
While Peggy’s life lives on through her artful legacy, Luisa and Doris serve as cautionary tales of spoiled excess. What all three females did have in common was a joie de vivre spirit that saw them making their own a palace that was originally built to celebrate male achievement. If only the Venier men could have seen what became of the palazzo!
Summer reading suggestions:
- If you’re interested in a broader history of these women and their connection to the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, be sure to dive right into The Unfinished Palazzo: Life, Love and Art in Venice by Judith Mackrell, available for pre-order.
- I read Peggy Guggenheim’s memoir last summer and it was incredibly interesting. I will warn you, she is a bit flippant about the war but delves into her childhood, love affairs and passion for art in a way that will have you turning the pages.