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  • Writer's pictureFiona Prior

The Unfinished Palazzo

I love truth being more fascinating than fiction.

The Unfinished Palazzo’ by Judith Mackrell is just that, the story of three fascinating women who took up residence in what is now the Venice Guggenheim… Maria Casati (and her pet cheetah!), Doris Castlerosse and, of course, Peggy Guggenheim.

But it is not just the story of these women. It is a story of the exotic history of Venetian expatriate life; punctuated by war, depression and changes in fortune. It illuminates high society and the demi-monde with all their intrigue, preoccupations and passions. It also covers some massive palazzo renovations … much material delivered by gondolier, of course!

Relationships of all three women often began at fabulous soirees and ‘weekend’ parties (so much more seductive a way of meeting than through dating apps) where women of means and ambition played pivotal roles in the intellectual and creative life of the era, advancing careers, and, of course, providing dazzling events.

image: Luisa Casati by Man Ray (1935)

Luisa Casati, the first of our residents, was heiress to a vast fortune and probably the most eccentric. Luisa threw amazing parties and had a pet cheetah who accompanied her on her gondolier excursions. At one of her ‘do’s’ she painted herself gold and handed her guests flowers as they arrived … (*Luisa was chronically shy, and by turning herself into an artwork she managed to avoid a good deal of social awkwardness ;)

*Doris Castlerosse would have been a courtesan a few centuries earlier but when she came to Venice she was a divorcee who was bestowed with remarkable ̶̶ though aging ̶̶ beauty and wit, and who felt her money and charms would go farther in Italy. ‘The Unfinished Palazzo’ presents Doris as the mistress of a number of wealthy and influential men, the most notable being Winston Churchill. One image in the book shows them at a house party lunch, the hostess of their inner circle allowing them a little distance from the rest of her guests so they could savour their time together.

(*Interestingly, Doris was the great-aunt of models Poppy Delevingne and Cara Delevingne ̶̶ Cara being the naughty 'It' girl model of recent years)

image: Doris Castlerosse by Winston Churchill (1930)

And, of course, there was Peggy Guggenheim. Feisty, irascible and indomitable, she was one of the 20th Century’s most significant cultural movers and shakers, as we all know.

The Unfinished Palazzo’ wonderfully captures expatriate society in Venice. The riveting text is accompanied by fabulous photographs, one of Luisa by Fortuny, and a number of iconic images of this walking piece of art by Man Ray. Romantically, there is a 'not-so-fabulous' portrait of Doris by Winston Churchill, his talent not quite equal to his love and lust. The image I most like of Peggy is of her installing a Calder mobile on the ceiling of her pavilion for the Venice Biennale of 1948, though the image of Peggy and Jackson Pollack standing in front of the mural he painted for her apartment in 1943 is telling of their combined histories (I believe everyone knows that these two had a tumultuous affair).

image: Peggy Gugenheim and Jackson Pollack in front of mural Pollack painted for Peggy's apartment (1943)

The Unfinished Palazzo’ captures love, war, society and Bohemia in 20th Century Venice through the lives of three remarkable women who refused to submit to society’s expectations of how they should live (and who all, admittedly, had a great deal of money to bank-roll their defiance:)

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