Venice: Peggy Guggenheim’s Floating City

In the ‘modern-Medici’ world of 20th century art patronage and
collecting, Peggy was a diamond in the rough. A woman to behold,
with large bangle earrings designed by friends such as Miró, Calder
and Yves Tanguy – all personal gifts of course – and a string of
small Lhasa Apso dogs, it’s easy to envisage her as a strange queen
of the art world, sitting upon an Italian throne, shunning the New
York scene for the ancient allure of Venezia. She worked fast with
expert guides (Herbert Read was a famous friend and advisor) and in
only a matter of years amassed a modern collection unlike any

The gallery itself is small and relatively modest in the world
of Venice, where Piazza San Marco sits like a satisfied cat
smothered in jewels and basking in the sunshine. Anyone who has
visited St. Mark’s Basilica will know that it reduces any former
conceptions of glamour or glitz to mere trimmings – it’s a
jewellery box of churches, as ornate and adorned as it’s possible
for several walls to be. In contrast to this stunning display of
wealth and opulence, Peggy’s home sits rather quietly at the side
of the Grand Canal, a long and surprisingly short white building
rising up from the water with tufts of greenery sprouting here and

I decided Venice would be my future home. I had always loved it more than any place on earth and felt I would be happy alone there

Guggenheim’s Venice home, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, designed
by Lorenzo Boschetti, remains to this day – at least in the eyes of
many Italians – palazzo incompiuto: the unfinished palace
– and it’s easy to see why. At only one floor high it’s a smug
little bungalow compared to its turreted neighbours. Although the
palazzos are a long way off from the famous grattacielo ‘sky
grabbers’, or as we rather dully call them skyscrapers, of modern
society, they still tower rather impressively over Peggy’s modest
plot. However, as with St. Mark’s, size is often deceptive, and
hidden within this unfinished palace lies what reads like an art
world’s who’s who of the 20th century.

After her father drowned on the Titanic in 1912 Peggy was left
at the age of 14 with a fortune of $2.5million (in today’s currency
$34million) which she could not access until she turned 21 in 1919.
Even with her new wealth she was unable to afford the masters of
the Italian Renaissance that she loved, and instead had to settle
for the modern masters emerging on the scene. It was in 1921 that
Peggy finally made her way to Europe, and in particular, Paris.

She was intrepid; an adventurer of the art world, hunting and
tracking down works like an archeologist might dig for gold. “I
soon knew where every painting in Europe could be found,” she wrote
“and I managed to get there, even if I had to spend hours going to
a little country town to see only one.” She famously set herself
the challenge to “buy a picture a day” and took to acquiring art,
as she did lovers, at a ferocious rate, snapping up works by the
likes of Dali, Picasso and Mondrian.

Peggy became connected to many artists in many ways, whether as
a buyer, a lover (she married Max Ernst for a time) or simply an
encouraging friend. Many of Jackson Pollock’s paintings reveal
inscriptions on their backs – ‘To Peggy’ or ‘To my darling Peggy’.
She had been one of the first to discover Pollock back when he was
a humble carpenter in Solomon Guggenheim’s museum. Peggy told him
to paint and pushed him further than many others ever had, giving
him his first exhibition in 1950 at the Museo Correr in Venice. Her
final collection in Venice played a crucial part in renewing
interest in postwar Italian art, along with resurrecting many of
the Italian futurists. Reappraisals of artists such as Giorgio
Morandi, Giuseppe Cpogrossi and Umeberto Boccioni can all be traced
back to Peggy’s unwavering support.

Although Peggy stayed on and off in Paris for 22 years, after
World War II she discovered Italy and it was Venice that finally
won her heart. In her memoir she remembers the decision to relocate
clearly: “I decided Venice would be my future home. I had always
loved it more than any place on earth and felt I would be happy
alone there.”

In 1948 her collection was exhibited at the Venice Biennale –
and with her collection she brought with her a number of artists
who had never been seen in Europe before: Pollock, Rothko and
Arshile Gorky, among others. She was a leading contributor in a
Biennale that would be remembered as – in Vittorio Carrain’s words
– “like opening a bottle of Champagne. It was the explosion of
modern art after the Nazis had tried to kill it.”

To live in Venice or even to visit it means that you fall in love with the city itself. There is nothing left over in your heart for anyone else.

“There is no normal life in Venice,” Peggy Guggenheim declared
in her autobiography Confessions of an Art Addict. “Here everything
and everyone floats. Not only the gondolas, launches, barges,
vaporettos, and sandalos but also the buildings and the people
float. One floats in and out of restaurants, shops, cinemas,
theatres, museums, churches and hotels. One floats luxuriously with
such a sense of freedom.” “Floatingness” – this was Peggy’s chosen
word for Venice – was the city’s “essential feeling.”

Despite this “floatingness” there are some things that remain
wonderfully rooted, despite the water, in the stones of Venice.
With all the buzz of the Biennale it’s good to know there are some
modern art fixtures in the city that are there the whole year
round. Ironically, one of these very permanent fixtures remains to
this day: the home-turned-gallery of Peggy Guggenheim, art world
royalty and the niece of the Guggenheim Museum founder Solomon R.

A year later she bought the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the
Grand Canal, and held an exhibition of her sculptures in its
gardens. Word soon spread of her collection as it toured Europe,
stopping off in Florence and Milan before finally settling with its
owner in Venice. In 1951, she opened her house and collection to
the general public every summer and each year her offerings to her
visitors grew and grew.

She was, and remains, a woman connected to the city – a woman
who saw the greatness of such a world in which water ran through
the streets, where water was the streets. She saw Italy for what it
was and loved it for what it was – not a picture-postcard creation
but a country as chaotic as it was beautiful. Although she died in
1979, Peggy remains in Venice. Even today if you look in a corner
of the garden of the Palazzo you will find her rather ornate
gravestone crowded with names: Peggy and her darlings. At first
glance I thought they might be children; never failing to
disappoint – in true diva style – instead I discovered the names
were in fact those of her beloved pets, her 14 Lhasa Apso dogs, one
after the other lovingly buried alongside their mistress.

In an essay in Michelangelo Muraro’s 1962 Invitation to Venice,
Peggy warned readers: “It is always assumed that Venice is the
perfect place to honeymoon. This is a grave error. To live in
Venice or even to visit it means that you fall in love with the
city itself. There is nothing left over in your heart for anyone

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